MEDIA — Patriotism was in the air at the Media Theatre Saturday night - in the show, “Eleanor, An American Love Story,” and during a special pre-show salute to U.S. Army Combat Veteran Matt Yagel of West Chester.

For 20 years, the Media Theatre Veterans Alliance's "Veterans Night" has been honoring veterans, getting them together to share a meal and enjoy a show with friends and family. Prior to curtain time, the alliance held an hour-long reception for veterans and their guests upstairs in the theatre’s Crystal Room. Yagel was accompanied to the show by his girlfriend Michelle Buchanan and his parents, Judy and Ken Yagel of Williamsport, Pa.

“I am very grateful for this recognition,” Yagel stated. “Sometime, it seems like soldiers’ service can be forgotten. However, it’s a special night like this, when veterans feel really good about their service being appreciated.”

Before the start of “Eleanor, The Musical,” a short ceremony took place, with the Delaware County Marine Corps League Detachment #288 in Upland serving as Color Guard and the National Anthem sung by Media Theatre student Maddie Van Horn. The veterans alliance award was presented to Yagel on stage in front of the entire audience by veterans Ed Buffman Sr. of Upper Providence, Arthur Burn of Linwood and Media Mayor Bob McMahon. Burn read a biography of the honoree, which was prepared by Jolene Buffman, a key member of the alliance.

“It’s a truly humbling experience to be honored in a room so full of history and years and years of military experience,” Yagel said as he looked around him at the guests before him, some in military uniforms,  in the beautiful historic theater. “This is a huge honor and privilege to be included with the past honorees and I am honestly, just so grateful for this award.”

Yagel was sworn into the National Guard during his senior year at Williamsport Area High School. After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to basic training at Fort Benning in July 2004.

“I chose the National Guard because it provided an opportunity for me to attend college, while continuing to serve,” Yagel explained. “Paying for school was one of my main motivations at that time.” 

Yagel was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a World War II veteran. He also has an uncle who was in the U.S. Marines and a nephew and cousin in the U.S. Navy. He said his parents and his four sisters were “incredibly supportive” of him during his years of service. 

After completing basic training, Yagel was assigned to the First 109th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

In 2005, Yagel’s Division was activated and he began a six-month active duty training period in Camp Shelby, Miss. Training involved qualifying on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and on the Rifle Range to prepare for his tour of duty in Iraq. Yagel was the telephone operator for the platoon, carrying a backpack radio and acting as the voice of the platoon lieutenant.

In August 2005, Yagel was sent to Kuwait for one month to prepare for Iraq where the war had been raging for two years. By late 2004, over 1,000 U.S. troops had been killed. In Kuwait, Yagel became the driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a lightly armored, fully tracked transport vehicle, providing cross-country mobility. Extra plates of armor were added to the vehicles for protection from IED explosions.

In September 2005, Yagel’s company was split up and he was attached to a company from Vermont that drove light vehicles. There were two Bradleys per platoon, and Yagel was the driver of one of them that provided extra fire power for the company. Their mission was to keep the area that they were patrolling manned for 24 hours. Yagel and his crew patrolled every day, on an eight-hour basis, constantly vigilant, looking for any changes in the area.

By 2006, after several weeks without incident, Yagel was working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift when he got a call to take a S.S. Sniper Team to his sector. Along the way, he hit an IED and his Bradley was badly damaged with a cracked engine. Luckily, nothing penetrated the vehicle. Yagel and his crew had to stay with the damaged vehicle for 24 hours in enemy territory, waiting to be picked up and returned to base. The sniper team left the Bradley and went on to complete their mission.

In another incident, Yagel’s unit went onto a road that hadn’t been cleared and an IED blew up another nearby Bradley. The Bradley burned for two days, killing every soldier inside. Yagel and his unit had to watch it burn as they were unable to get to it. After the fire went out, Yagel and his crew had the grim task of removing the soldiers’ remains.

Yagel’s tour of duty ended in June 2006. He came home and enrolled in Penn State, remaining in the National Guard. In his junior year at college, Yagel was re-activated. In 2008, Yagel spent three months at Camp Shelby, assigned to the 5th Striker Brigade, a special combat team. By December, he was sent to Camp Tajl, outside of Baghdad, where he was the radio telephone operator. Yagel worked 12 hours a day with the camp CEO, coordinating all orders to the U.S. troops.

In September 2009, Yagel returned home and was honorably discharged. The solider was released from the National Guard in 2011. Through his years in service, Yagel had earned the Combat Infantry Badge, the Iraqi Campaign Medal With Two Campaign Stars, the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Reserve Medal With Device, and the Driver and Mechanic Badge With Driver Tracked Vehicles.

Yagel returned to Penn State, earning a degree in business management in 2013 and then starting a career in banking. Currently a resident of West Chester, Yagel is working as a mortgage broker with Vantage Pointe Mortgage in Blue Bell. In his spare time, the veteran, who calls himself an “avid outdoorsman,” enjoys hiking, fishing, hunting, snowboarding and summer day trips to the beach. He also enjoys all types of music, from rock and country to hip hop and blues.

After the show, Yagel and his fellow veterans gave a thumbs up to “Eleanor, An American Love Story.” The musical, on stage at the Media Theatre through Sunday, Feb. 23, is based on the early lives of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt from their passionate courtship, through their complicated marriage with a domineering mother-in-law, to Eleanor’s emerging role as a catalyst for social change in America. “Eleanor” touches on marital issues, the pressure of being an elected leader’s wife, raising five children, in-law contention, women’s rights, along with the broader scope of being a catalyst for social change.

Veterans Night at the Media Theatre was the event which planted the seed in 2001 for what became the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum, 12 E. State St., Media, in the former Armory below Trader Joe's. The museum got its start in 2001 in the Media Theatre after a stage production of "South Pacific." Veterans were encouraged to bring memorabilia from their service days to make a display for the theatre during the show's run. Local veterans came with photos, ribbons, letters to home and medals for the exhibit, unknowingly forging the foundation for what was later to become the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum, just a short distance down the street from the theatre.

The museum, opened in 2005, continues to expand content and exhibits, as it educates visitors of all ages to the experiences and history of veterans during times of war. It is the museum's mission to ensure that current and future generations understand the true nature of war, and recognize the sacrifices made in the name of freedom and security

The nonprofit museum has free admission. Hours are noon-5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. For more information on the museum, call 610-566-0788.

For more information on Media Theatre's upcoming productions, including “Eleanor, An American Love Story,” or for tickets to the next Veterans Night at Media Theatre, call 610-891-0100 or visit mediatheatre.org.

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