LONSBERRY: Pegula Company Nixes Memorial Service For Fallen Soldiers

The company that owns the Buffalo Bills has shot down government plans for a memorial service to honor three New York Army National Guardsmen killed in the crash of their military helicopter outside Rochester.

               The ongoing obstruction by Pegula Sports and Entertainment has frustrated local officials, mystified the governor’s office and infuriated the top general in the National Guard.

               At issue is the desire by government leaders to hold a public memorial service for the three fallen soldiers in the Rochester Community War Memorial.

Chief Warrant Officers Steven Skoda, Christian Koch and Daniel Prial died when their medivac Black Hawk went down on a routine night-vision training flight over Mendon, New York. All of the soldiers were combat veterans, with a combined 63 years of Army service. In addition, Koch was a civilian pilot for the New York State Police, and Prial was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

               A private memorial was held for family and military associates shortly after the crash. It was outside and the temperature was in the teens.

               At the time, the sentiment out of the governor’s office was that Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanted to honor the soldiers more appropriately at a later, indoor, public ceremony where the state and the community could pay their proper respects. Pursuant to that, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello sought to secure the use of the War Memorial, a large, city-owned arena in Rochester.

               That’s where the Pegulas come in.

               In a contract with the City of Rochester, Pegula Sports and Entertainment manages the arena. Since securing the contract, the Pegulas have largely used the facility for their own purposes and its traditional users have often been turned away. Currently, the War Memorial is used almost exclusively for the Pegulas’ minor-league hockey team, named, ironically, the Americans.

               But the facility remains owned by the public, and it has a long history of being the venue for large community events – like the 2014 funeral of slain Rochester police Officer Daryl Pierson.

               Public officials naturally wanted the War Memorial for the service honoring the fallen soldiers.

               But they hit a brick wall when they approached the Pegulas.

               In the first meeting, Pegula officials seemed dismissive of the request, sometimes with audible sighs of apparent contempt.

               “You could see in their faces, they were irritated by even having to discuss this,” one participant said.

               What followed was a long series of obstacles thrown up by the Pegula company to obstruct the event, to say no without actually saying no.

               They tried covid. But the Monroe County Health Department said it was fine with the memorial service. The governor’s office likewise reiterated its approval, and said it would classify the service as a religious event, thereby removing several covid obstacles.

               Then the Pegula company said, “We’re going to have to charge you a lot of money for this,” citing union contracts and personnel costs. The governor’s office found a legal provision under which, given the nature of the event, the union contracts would not apply and the Pegulas could reduce their labor costs. When that was not satisfactory, the governor’s office and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office agreed to provide all on-site labor for the event – using National Guard soldiers and sheriff’s deputies.

               And the Pegula company rejected that.

               “The governor’s office jumped through hoops to make this happen,” a source said. “Everybody in government was, ‘We will do everything we can to honor these men.’

               “Everything was approved. Everybody signed off. Adam (Bello): Absolutely. Governor’s office: Absolutely. (Chamber of Commerce President Bob) Duffy: Absolutely.

               “And we got only disrespect back from” Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

               The company would not agree to allow the War Memorial to be used to honor dead soldiers.

               And that set the general off.

               On Wednesday night, a senior commander of the New York Army National Guard, who had to bury three of his soldiers and try to comfort their families, boiled over.

               “The Guard feels so disrespected right now, they don’t even want to talk about it,” a source said. “It’s got more pride for its soldiers than to be involved in nonsense like this.”

               And that’s where things stand.

               Because of seemingly purposeful intransigence from the company owned by Terry and Kim Pegula, and its practical refusal to allow a community-owned arena to be used for a memorial service, three soldiers, killed in the line of duty, will not be able to be honored by the community they served and called home.

               Which is despicable.

               And an unforgivable disrespect to three dead soldiers, their families, and all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces