VINELAND — Sgt. Dominick Pilla was 19 when he was shot and killed in 1993 serving his country. Now, Pilla’s legacy will be immortalized in his hometown with the recent naming of the city’s newest school in his honor.
Last month, the Vineland Board of Education voted to name the Lincoln Avenue Middle School for Pilla after a public process that included 12 nominations.
“It was such a great moment, not just for my family, but for all the people who knew Dominick. So many of the people who he served with thought that he saved their lives that day in that battle,” said Pilla’s sister, Jennifer Pilla-Martine, 44, of Vineland, a teacher at the Pauline Petway Elementary School here.
Pilla-Martine’s effort to get a district school named for her brother goes back more than a decade. The Vineland School District has a history of naming the schools for important city residents and those who contributed to the district.
“This process allows us to remember those people who have given so much of their lives giving back to this community and the children of our school district,” said Jeffrey M. Bordley, Board of Education president.
“Our community has learned about the lives and dedication of 10 Vineland heroes through this process and, although only one received the honor of having the school dedicated to them, we were provided the opportunity to learn about those before us.”
Pilla, an Army Ranger, was part the Battle of Mogadishu, a military mission in Somalia that was portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down.”
According to Press archives, on Oct. 3, 1993, an elite force of 120 American Delta units and Ranger infantry were dropped into Mogadishu to abduct two lieutenants of Somalia warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Instead, two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and what was expected to take an hour lasted 15, and 18 Americans were killed.
Pilla, an M-60 gunner, was shot while riding in a Humvee trying to get an injured fellow Ranger back to base.
In 2006, Pilla-Martine submitted her brother’s name for consideration for one of the three schools under construction at the time, but he wasn’t chosen.
When the Lincoln Avenue Middle School was being constructed last year, Pilla-Martine said she didn’t hear anything about the nomination process, so she went to a school board meeting in March to ask them to consider opening it up for suggestions. They decided not to at the time.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to give up yet,’” Pilla-Martine said.
So she formed a committee and got 3,000 signatures on a petition to have the school named for someone.
Pilla-Martine was met with some resistance this time, she said, but in July, the board finally agreed to open up the nomination process.
The Lincoln Avenue Middle School opened in September with a ribbon cutting by Gov. Phil Murphy and without a local name.
On Oct. 17, the school board heard from several dozen people speaking in favor of the 12 nominees. Ultimately, Dominick Pilla was chosen.
“I was really so surprised. I kept telling people the whole time that I was cautiously optimistic, but I didn’t dare think for a minute that we had it in the bag,” Pilla-Martine said. “There’s not too many schools nationwide that are named for soldiers who were killed in action. It was a huge thing for them to do. It’s somewhat groundbreaking.”
Bordley said several factors played a role in Pilla’s selection, including his military service and his lifelong residency in Vineland.
“Sgt. Pilla gave his life to protect the life of another and there is no better example of bravery, selflessness, or heroism than this,” Bordley said.
According to Bordley, the district is still working out the plans for a renaming ceremony.