GENEVA — Jeff Ciancaglini was a student at Geneva High School in the mid-1990s when he met Steve Sciarabba, who was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career with the U.S. Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division.
“I met Steve when I was 14 at an athletic awards banquet. Me and his son were on the wrestling team,” Ciancaglini said. “We started talking about the military and I was real interested in his tours of duty. I was just a young teenage kid, but it sounded like something I wanted to do. Just having him there and talking to me was awesome.”
Fast forward to the present. Now a first sergeant and decorated paratrooper, Ciancaglini took part in the 82nd Airborne’s annual All-American Week ceremonies at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which were held at the end of May.
All-American Week is an opportunity for paratroopers past and present to celebrate being members of “America’s Guard of Honor.” The week is filled with athletic competitions, ceremonies, a memorial and arms demonstration — all open to the public.
Sciarabba, chief operating officer of Geneva-based Champion Security Services, attended the event with his wife Dawn. It was a chance for Sciarabba — who was stationed at Fort Bragg decades ago — to see and support Ciancaglini, who he stays in contact with on a regular basis.
“Jeff is a fast-tracker and has done remarkably well in his Army career,” Sciarabba said. “Some of his military accomplishments are Herculean considering the challenges he faced and what it takes to be a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, whom many consider the elite best of the best of the Army’s units.”
Ciancaglini, a 1999 Geneva High grad, did his basic and advanced training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and later went through airborne school — called “jump school” by paratroopers — and was stationed at Fort Bragg. As he nears his 20th year in the Army, he has been with the 82nd Airborne for the past 13 years, including three combat tours in Iraq.
“A U.S. Army paratrooper is a special trooper. This is like being in the major leagues. We expect to be outnumbered when we jump in, and we will be outnumbered,” he said. “When you come here, it’s a different experience. It’s being part of something.”
The 82nd Airborne has been part of every major conflict the U.S. has been involved in since World War I. During All-American Week, Ciancaglini and other active 82nd Airborne members met with paratroopers from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sciarabba, who enlisted with fellow Genevans Bob “Goober” Venturino and Greg Walczak in the summer of 1977, was deployed to Grenada, Panama, Kuwait and Haiti during his 20-plus years in the Army. Sciarabba, who was awarded numerous medals, retired in 1999 with the rank of sergeant first class.
Sciarabba also used the recent trip to Fort Bragg to pay tribute to Venturino, who was also in the 82nd Airborne and died unexpectedly last year. Walczak, also a member of that unit, now lives in Oswego.
“Back then they had what was called the buddy program, where you went into together and were guaranteed to go through basic, advanced training and jump school if you took the airborne option,” Sciarabba said. “You were guaranteed to be stationed together all the way to your permanent duty — for us, Fort Bragg. It was a really special time for us all. I miss it dearly.”
After retiring, Sciarabba went to the Middle East and Africa from 2003-2010 as an independent security contractor. Champion Security provides protective security for numerous state and federal agencies, both domestic and abroad.
Perhaps the highlight of All-American Week was a parachute drop and airborne review for the 82nd. The event commemorated the division’s 102nd year and 75th anniversary of the division’s two historic operations in Normandy and Holland during D-Day and Operation Market Garden.
Ciancaglini, who has numerous medals and is a certified Army Jumpmaster, took part in that drop. He is closing in on 100 jumps for his career.
“A paratrooper has pride and sets the Army standard for physical fitness. You have to be physically fit and mentally fit, and each paratrooper does that in his or her own way,” he said. “You face death every time you exit the plane. It’s still a rush and I still have nervous jitters even though I am a Jumpmaster. That’s normal. If you aren’t a little nervous, you shouldn’t be doing this job.”
Ciancaglini, whose parents and brothers still live in Geneva, has been married for nine years and has three stepdaughters. Even though he could retire after serving 20 years in service, he currently has no plans to.
He still refers to Sciarabba as his mentor.
“Guys like him paved the way for us. When Steve was coming in, he was trained by guys who were in Vietnam, and Steve trained others after him,” Ciancaglini said. “I was trained by guys before me, and I am now training the current generation. Steve defines the words coach and mentor. If I was in Geneva now and I knew a kid was interested in the military, I would give him Steve’s number. I owe a lot of my career success to Steve. He set the tone for me and I wanted to be like him. That guy has done it all.”
“We had some tremendous times being in that division. We felt proud and invincible,” Sciarabba said. “There is a brotherhood that exists, a camaraderie — if you will — between past and present airborne soldiers that lives on forever. It’s just fantastic to see dedicated soldiers like Jeff Ciancaglini carry on the airborne paratrooper legacy with such great conviction.”