VINELAND — As a Black Hawk helicopter touched down on a field behind Sgt. Dominick Pilla Middle School at noon Saturday, a young boy said “holy moly” before disappearing into a crowd of dozens of people waving American flags.
The landing kicked off a dedication ceremony for the school; the name was changed from Lincoln Avenue Middle School in October to honor Pilla, an Army Ranger who died at 19 while serving his country in Somalia.
“It’s not just for Dominick,” said his sister, Jennifer Pilla-Martine, a teacher at Pauline Petway Elementary School in the city. “It’s for every soldier who served and every soldier who’s made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Pilla fought in the Battle of Mogadishu, a military mission in Somalia in 1993 that was portrayed in the 2001 movie “Black Hawk Down.” He was shot while riding in a Humvee trying to get an injured fellow Army Ranger back to base. Eighteen Americans total were killed during the mission.
Many of Vineland’s schools are named after people in the community, Pilla-Martine noted, and after forming a committee to have the school renamed last year, out of 12 nominations, Dominick, a Vineland native, was picked by the city’s Board of Education.
“It’s important for the kids to have the right role models, and what better way to show them who they should be admiring than by naming a school after him,” she said, adding it’s a daily reminder for students of “what’s really important and what really matters.”
The students at the middle school have been researching Pilla and others who served in the military, said Principal Tammy Monahan.
Students have created poems, digital slides and other work on the subject, she said. And the school’s six pillars of character — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship — have been renamed “Pilla’s Pillars.”
“The military itself falls in line with building character and leadership, and we’re trying to drive that home,” she said. “I see the students making that connection, and they’re eager to learn.”
Carlos Mercado Jr., the fundraising chair for the dedication, said they raised thousands of dollars for the ceremony so the city wouldn’t have to pay.
Mercado has known Pilla-Martine since childhood but said he never had the opportunity to meet her brother.
Mercado’s son will attend the school next year, and he’s excited for him to learn about Pilla and how he made the ultimate sacrifice to protect freedom, he said.
“I don’t think there could have been a better person to name a school after,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”