Staff photo by Lori M. NicholsDianne Hammond (right) speaks about her son, Sgt. Alessandro ‘Sandrino’ Plutino, a U.S. Army Ranger who died in Afghanistan Monday, as Alessandro’s fiance Natalie Layton, and father, Sandro Plutino, embrace.
Plutino’s fiancee, Natalie Layton of Glassboro, said he seemed excited to come home.
“We’ve been together 10 years. We were supposed to get married next summer so we were planning everything out,” said Layton. “He was supposed to be done in the spring, but he went on this mission. His country meant more to him than anything else. If it was up to him he would’ve quit high school to go. He always said ‘This is my calling.’”
Layton said Plutino was “the strongest person I ever met.”
“We balanced each other out,” said Layton. “I’m so vulnerable, and he was always the strong one. When he loved something, he really put his mind to it. He loved his country, he loved his family, he loved all of us.”
“And we couldn’t have been prouder of him,” added Plutino’s older sister Brenna.
Hammond said, in addition to his commitment and patriotism, her son could be remembered as the kid who always had a smile on his face.
“Even when he was very young, he could just walk into a room and capture it,” said Hammond. “He was special. And I know every mother’s son is special, but he really was. People have been coming here to the house all day, his friends, his buddies from the motorcycle group he rode with. He loved to ride, he played football and wrestled, he was an all-American boy.”
Friends, educators and local officials also reflected on Plutino’s life Monday, recalling him as an outgoing student, gifted athlete and all-around “great kid.”
“This is a real loss to the whole community,” said Pitman Mayor Mike Batten, who coached Plutino in wrestling. “Our police department went over to his mother’s house this morning and I plan to go over later today when I can get myself together. Sandrino was an extreme hard worker, as evidenced by the fact that he was an Army Ranger, and he was the best of what this country can put out.”
Batten said he knows Plutino’s mother well and was a friend of his grandfather’s.
“It’s a wonderful family and such a sad day for them,” said Batten. “I’m going to ask the whole town to fly their flags in Sandrino’s memory.”
Plutino, a 2001 Pitman High School graduate, is also remembered fondly by school officials.
“He was a Kindle student from kindergarten through fifth grade, and he was always full of positive energy,” said Kindle School Principal Fran Yearwood. “He was a delight to have as a student, and we loved his whole family. I know he was always very athletic and a leader on the playground, and he was just an energetic, enjoyable student to have. This is just horrible news.”
Pitman Schools Superintendent Patrick McAleer said Plutino and his sister were former students of his when he taught at Pitman Middle School. He said Plutino was a “nice kid” with a “nice family.”
“Today, the entire town of Pitman is devastated by the news that Alessandro L. Plutino, a United States Army Ranger, was killed in action while proudly serving his country in Afghanistan,” said McAleer, in a statement issued by the school district Monday afternoon. “His teachers and classmates will always remember Sandrino as a popular and outgoing young man who was always quick with a laugh or smile. He was a committed student who also excelled as an athlete, participating in football and wrestling. The Pitman Public Schools and the entire Pitman community share in the loss of this dedicated and brave American. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Plutino family and the families of all those servicemen and servicewomen who are proudly serving America.”
McAleer noted that Plutino went on to wrestle at the collegiate level at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. After graduating from high school, Plutino first attended college at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. Dave Stawasz, associate director of media relations at Western New England University, confirmed that Plutino was enrolled there from fall 2001 to spring 2003 and that he was a member of the university’s wrestling and football teams. Articles from Wilkes University lists Plutino as a 2005 graduate, but calls to the university were not returned by deadline.
Ed Campbell from the Pitman VFW said the news of Plutino’s death was very sad.
“He is the 40th young man Pitman has lost over the years in various wars,” said Campbell. “I don’t know if another town our size has taken a bigger hit. It’s so upsetting. I served in Korea and every loss is like a punch in the gut. I want to stop putting monuments to our young people up in the park.”
Campbell noted, and Councilwoman Debra Higbee confirmed, that Plutino was not the first in his family to be honored among those lost. Navy veteran and Pitman resident Robert D. Hammond — an uncle of Plutino’s mother — was killed in action during World War II in 1944.
Even those who had never met Plutino mourned the loss.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Army Ranger Alessandro Plutino, who served his country with honor and distinction,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo. “Too often, we here in America forget that our freedoms are not free, they are courageously protected by the men and women who wear the uniform. As the Pitman community remembers and honors Sandrino, our country can never repay the debt of gratitude for his ultimate sacrifice on behalf of us all.”
Gloucester County Veterans Affairs Director Duane Sarmiento said he received many calls Monday about Plutino.
“I speak on behalf of the 22,000 veterans in Gloucester County and our hearts go out to the family,” said Sarmiento. “No one but the mothers and fathers who have lost children in the service can understand the great level of grief that comes with it, but on behalf of all veterans we will stand behind his family and we are so proud of his service. If we can do anything for the family, they shouldn’t hesitate to ask. I am notified whenever a soldier is killed in the state, but it really hits home when that person is from Gloucester County.”
Sarmiento said Plutino’s heroism is the type that should never be forgotten.
“We must ensure that the youth of tomorrow have an understanding of whom they should honor and why,” said Sarmiento. “People like Alessandro should be honored 20 years from now, not baseball players or celebrities. These are the true heroes.”
Hammond echoed the importance of that recognition.
“It’s important that people know that these young men and women chose to do this, their belief in this country is way up there,” said Hammond. “I’ve heard today that it is not what the SEALs would’ve wanted to come home now, and it wasn’t what Sandrino wanted to do either. He believed in the mission and that they had to nip it in the bud before it came to our shores. A lot of people don’t even fly their flags anymore, which is a shame. People should go to bed thanking those people serving in the military and their families.”