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COMMUNITY SUPPORTS SOLDIER WOUNDED IN IRAQ

Local support has poured out for John Pirinelli, a young Niagara County soldier critically injured in Iraq, since his return home.

About 1,000 people bought tickets at $20 each to a benefit held Nov. 5, although family members declined to say how much the benefit raised after expenses.

Medical costs for the 23-year-old Army specialist -- who was shot in the back July 28 in an ambush near Tikrit -- are completely covered by the government, said Don Vandrey, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center spokesman.

But Pirinelli does not want to re-enlist. The Bergholz native was married in January, and he and his wife, Katrin, recently had their first child. Pirinelli hopes to be discharged next summer.

His last surgery to reverse an ileostomy -- much damage was done to his vital organs -- is scheduled for early next year.

"The Army has been wonderful," said his mother, Rise Pirinelli. "Where a problem could be is the future in the next year after he is discharged."

She said her son may not be able to work right away or be hired right away and has a family to support.

He also plans to use a portion of the benefit's proceeds to fly between Washington, D.C., -- where he will be stationed for a month -- and Bergholz, where his wife and child have moved. After he leaves the Army, Pirinelli will be a free man but still will have medical costs, and that's where Veterans Affairs will step in, said Evangeline Conley, acting public affairs officer for VA Western New York Healthcare System at Buffalo.

"People who get discharged need to enroll in VA health care," Conley said. "If they have recently served in combat, they get two years of free health care from the date of separation or discharge."

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