WATERTOWN – Sgt. 1st Class Scott Messier, a Soldier from the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Drum, became the latest recipient of the Pvt. Joseph Blake Scholarship during a ceremonial luncheon held June 26 by the local chapter of the Rotary International club at the Italian American Civic Association building.
The scholarship was created in 2006 as part of the Purple Heart Scholarship Fund, which the Watertown chapter of the Rotary Club established in 2004 as a way to celebrate the club's 100 years of service to people throughout the world. The Pvt. Joseph Blake Scholarship is unique in being the only named scholarship in the fund.
Blake, an infantryman with A Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, was killed in 2006 while deployed with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan. His parents, Douglas and Joann Blake, received compensation from the Army for his loss. Shortly after, they decided to contribute a portion of it to veterans’ causes.
“After our son was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2006, we had committed to using whatever monies we received from his death to set up a memorial for him,” Joann Blake said.
The Blakes’ initial desire to help Soldiers came from a conversation that they had with their son while he was visiting during his mid-tour leave in July 2006, shortly before he was killed.
“Joe was single, and when he came home on his mid-deployment leave on July 4, one of the things he said to us was that he was glad he was that he was not married and how hard it was for the Families of the deployed Soldiers,” Joann Blake said.
The Blakes, who reside in Livonia, Mich., were introduced to the Purple Heart Scholarship Fund when their son’s best friend in his unit, Sgt. Miguel Solano, contacted them after 3rd Brigade's return to Fort Drum.
“When we first came back from our deployment in 2007, I heard word from our first sergeant that they wanted us to come to the Rotary Club, because they were having a commemoration for the recipients of Purple Hearts,” Solano said. “And unfortunately, I was one of them.”
At the luncheon Solano attended, it occurred to him that the real honorees should be the Purple Heart recipients who were not there, the ones who had sacrificed their lives.
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking we should not be the ones being celebrated,” he said
Solano's first contact with the Blakes came during his mid-tour leave at his home in Nacodoches, Texas. He had his aunt call the Blakes to see if it would be all right if he called them. Shortly after he and the Blakes had spoken with each other, Solano sent them a music CD and a letter.
“He knew that Joe had been killed and wanted to know if it would be OK to call,” Joann Blake said. “And I'll tell you, that was the most precious telephone call to us, because he had a connection with Joe.”
The Blakes continued to stay in contact with Solano after he returned to his unit at the end of his mid-tour leave and upon his return, related to him what their son had told them as well as their desire to help Soldiers and their Families. The Blakes approached the Rotary Club with Solano acting as their connection to Fort Drum, with their intention for the money they received after their son died.
“He (Solano) really was our primary contact with Fort Drum,” she said. “I told him about what we really wanted to do.”
Solano told them about the Rotary Club and what they were doing and put the Blakes in contact with Terrence Roche, a former Fort Drum garrison commander, who informed them the Rotary Club has a scholarship for 10th Mountain Soldiers.
“We contacted Terry and found out that they were having a fundraiser for the scholarship that already existed,” Joann Blake said. “And I explained that we would like to offer a matching amount for anything they could raise, up to $15,000.”
While the money for the Purple Heart Scholarship Fund was being raised primarily through drawings, the Blakes said they preferred to match their pledge to money raised with donations. The money that was raised far exceeded the original $15,000. Upon seeing the work that went into the effort, they matched the whole amount. What followed next came as a complete surprise to the Blakes.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but they had decided to name that particular scholarship after our son,” Joann Blake said. “It was not our intention for them to do that, but they did it because we matched their amount.”
The scholarships that the Rotary Club offers through its Purple Heart program may be funded through money that they raise; however, it is through the work of the Northern New York Community Foundation, which manage this and other scholarship programs for the Rotary Program, Roche said.
The fact that the scholarship already has a profound tie to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team and the 10th Mountain Division (LI) is made even more so when Sgt. 1st Class Messier mentioned that he earned the first of his two Purple Hearts on the same deployment as Blake and Solano while he was a weapons squad leader with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.
Messier, who plans to pursue a degree in human services, has medically retired from the Army; the day on he received his scholarship was his last day on active duty.
The friendship that the CD, letter and the phone call forged between Solano and the Blakes had a profound effect on all of them. It led to a bond between the Blakes and the surviving members of Blake's platoon that endures to this day, although Solano, who is currently assigned to 543rd Military Police Company, 91st Military Police Battalion, is the last member of Blake's platoon still at Fort Drum.
“They come to visit every year during Mountainfest,” Solano said, “and they have become a part of my Family.”