Sometimes things that are just meant to happen take a little time.

A chance meeting of two former Marines at a bus garage in Ross four years ago will culminate this weekend with the first Pennsylvania display of the GoldStars Tribute Wall, a memorial display to honor military veterans who died in the Middle East and their families. The wall will be displayed on the lawn outside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland as part of a weekend that will include a vigil for prisoners of war from the Vietnam War and a display of dog tags to honor those lost during the 9/11 attacks.

In early 2019, retired Gunnery Sgt. Samuel Nicoara was at the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s bus garage in Ross to help prepare new buses manufactured by his employer, Gillig, for use by the local transit agency now known as Pittsburgh Regional Transit. That’s where he met retired heavy equipment maintenance officer Rick Eanes, who serves as deputy chief operations officer for maintenance and rails at PRT.

As the former jarheads chatted, Nicoara mentioned his side gig as creator and head of the nonprofit Tribute to America’s Fallen Heroes Foundation that takes the GoldStars Tribute Wall to about 15 events a year across the country. For Eanes, who serves as president of the group of about 200 veterans who work at PRT, an idea was born to bring the wall to the Pittsburgh area.

Eanes took the idea to PRT leadership, which agreed to be a sponsor. Spokesman Adam Brandolph said this is among a series of events the agency supports.

“We sponsor a lot of events that are important to our communities and our employees,” he said.

Short notice led to difficulty finding a venue that year, and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. They tried last year, when Soldiers & Sailors had a busy schedule, but the perfect match was available this weekend.

PRT’s sponsorship includes advertising wraps on two buses based at the East Liberty garage to help promote the free event.

Pittsburgh Regional Transit is sponsoring a Pittsburgh display of the GoldStars Tribute Wall and decorated two of its buses to publicize the event. (Courtesy of GoldStars Tribute Wall)

Eanes and Nicoara have spent months lining up additional sponsors such as the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 85 to cover the costs and arranging military and police contingents to escort Nicoara and his trailer the last 62 miles from Interstate 79 near the West Virginia border to the museum. Nicoara drives the trailer from his home in Hoschton, Georgia, using his 20 vacation days each year to schedule displays.

“Luckily, I was in the military for 20 years, so I know about logistics,” Eanes said. “It’s just a matter of how we get this huge trailer through the [Fort Pitt Tunnel] and into Oakland before the rush-hour traffic.”

Eanes, who served in the Persian Gulf in 1998, said it’s important to him to honor fallen military veterans and their families. The Gold Star insignia originated during World War I, when families with active servicemen displayed a blue ribbon and star in the window, but they received a gold star if their family member died in action.

“It’s just one of those tight communities that not a lot of people really know that much about,” he said of Gold Star families. “This memorial is special. I put it up there with USS Arizona [at Pearl Harbor] and the Vietnam Memorial.”

Nicoara quipped that the idea for the wall came to him in “a bad dream” about 15 years ago.

“As much as I tried to argue with it, I couldn’t stay away from it,” he said. “It’s something I just had to do.”

Nicoara said he felt compelled to create the tribute wall because of the length of the Middle East action and the fact that federal guidelines don’t allow the government to fund such memorials until 10 years after the end of a conflict. That could have meant a federal memorial wouldn’t have begun until more than 30 years after the effort began, which he called too late for families whose death of their loved one is “a fresh memory in their mind every day.”

In addition to taking the wall to displays, Nicoara will make special trips to Gold Star families who are unable to travel. Other families follow the wall when it is on display, including a family from Alaska that is expected in Pittsburgh this weekend.

The wall consists of 16 panels that when assembled measure 91 feet long by 9 feet tall. The panels contain the names and military branches of more than 7,200 who have died since the Middle East battles began in 1991.

A crew of eight PRT veteran volunteers are expected to assemble the wall Friday in less than five hours, meaning it should be open to visitors by midafternoon Friday. It will remain on display until midafternoon Sunday.

John McCabe, the president of the trust that runs Soldiers & Sailors, said the hall gets many requests to show displays, but a lot of them come with costs or space requirements the facility can’t handle. Because the GoldStars Wall arranges sponsors and can be displayed outside, he said, it was perfect for this weekend.

“This one fits,” he said. “It ended up being an extension of what we do every day.”

The wall, which will be set up on the lower lawn closest to Fifth Avenue, will join two other events this weekend. Vietnam Veterans Inc. will have its annual 24-hour vigil for POW-MIA soldiers with an honor guard and color guard beginning at noon Saturday on the upper lawn, and the museum will display 7,053 dog tags strung between outside light poles representing those who died during fighting in the war on terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, including 304 Pennsylvania residents.

“It will be a special weekend,” McCabe said. “We are very fortunate [GoldStars Wall] reached out to us. It’s one of the only memorials dedicated to the families of the veterans.”

The GoldStars Tribute Wall. (tribute

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at