WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange calls itself “the most decorated community in New Jersey” for being the home to 360 recipients of the New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal, the state’s highest award for military service. Although this is an unofficial distinction, no one can deny that the township takes pride in its veterans. For proof of this, one only had to attend its latest Veterans Day ceremony.
In spite of the brisk chill in the air and the ominous clouds overhead threatening rain, dozens of veterans turned out to be honored by the township during the ceremony held in War Memorial Park at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, as Veterans Day tradition dictates. And the event certainly served as a fitting tribute to servicemen and women who, as master of ceremonies Joe Brennan said in his speech, deserve to be recognized for sacrificing their lives for the freedom of others.
From the township council members’ laying a wreath in honor of departed veterans’ mothers to the West Orange High School Brass Ensemble’s performance of the national anthem and taps, to VFW Post 376’s leading of the Pledge of Allegiance, the occasion gave ample opportunity to reflect on what it means to risk everything for one’s country. Overall, the message of the program was clear: Veterans are true heroes who deserve credit for their actions.
“It’s important to honor the women and the men who served,” Brennan told the West Orange Chronicle in an interview following the ceremony. “These are people who went from being stock clerks or lawyers or doctors or housewives and gave themselves to defend our freedoms and our Constitution. Whether they agreed with everything that was said or done, they put their lives on the forefront.”
Brennan himself served in the military for three years, including one year in Vietnam working in military intelligence assigned to the Army Special Forces. He even earned the Bronze Star in addition to numerous other distinctions. Years later, the former councilman said not a day goes by for him without thinking about that time in his life, whether they are funny memories of the men with whom he served or the “memories that you don’t want to talk about.” But through it all, he said he does not regret volunteering.
“Given all the circumstances, I would do it again if I had to,” Brennan said. “I just hope that my sons and my grandsons never have to.”
Al Guadagno also still vividly remembers his time serving as an Army technician 5th grade in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II. Guadagno recalled that it was his job to provide troops with all the supplies they needed. Though it was a difficult time, he said he made a lot of friends among those with whom he served. In fact, he said he still sometimes writes letters to them.
And while his military service ended years ago, the 97-year-old Guadagno said honoring fellow veterans is still meaningful to him. He said he sometimes visits gravesites to pay tribute to soldiers he knew who died and, through the VFW, works to make sure future generations understand the sacrifice servicemen and women make. Just that morning, he and some other VFW members visited the students at Washington Elementary School to discuss the significance of Veterans Day.
“I think one thing you can never stop doing is honoring the veterans,” Guadagno told the Chronicle prior to the ceremony. “It’s the most important thing for me.”
Guadagno was not the only VFW member in attendance at the event. Deputy Mayor Ralph Panciello, commander of West Orange’s VFW Post 376, said it is always a pleasure for him to participate in the Veterans Day ceremony, which he said West Orange has been holding for many years. As a veteran of World War II, where he fought in the South Pacific as a tech sergeant in the infantry, Panciello told the Chronicle that it means a lot to him to see the town pay tribute to him and others who served. At the same time, he said he is glad to give back to his fellow veterans through his efforts in the VFW.
The VFW indeed does do a lot for veterans and non-veterans alike. Its services include informing veterans about government benefits for which they are eligible, as well as raising money for local causes, including a recent $500 donation to the Holy Trinity West Orange Food Pantry. Additionally, it gives two $500 annual scholarships to WOHS students, and also sells poppies to raise money for wounded veterans.
Yet one of the best things the VFW does, according to Post 376 quartermaster Al Hughes, is provide an opportunity for veterans to connect with one another. Hughes, who was a first sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam War before continuing his service as a career soldier, said he has greatly enjoyed learning from military “comrades” as well as sharing his own experiences with them. Though the 97-member post ranges in age to soldiers in their late 20s to late 90s, he said it is easy to relate to everyone.
“There is no generation gap between veterans,” Hughes told the Chronicle after the event. “There’s a camaraderie that’s bonding. We have people who’ve served in World War II, Vietnam, Korea. But when these guys come together, it’s like one. It’s almost like they served together no matter what war they served in.
“It’s a special thing,” he continued. “I can’t explain it, but it’s just something that exists between us. We’ve got each other’s backs.”
Council President Jerry Guarino stressed in his speech that the township also has veterans’ backs, reminding them that they should reach out to the council or administration for whatever they may need. Speaking to the Chronicle afterward, Guarino said that helping those who have served is especially meaningful to him because veterans have put their lives at risk just to make sure the United States remains free. He pointed out that they enabled him to become an elected official, and have made it so residents can be whatever they want to be.
It should be West Orange’s duty to look after its veterans, the council president said, because their sacrifices have enabled the township to be what it is today.
“If it wasn’t for them, who knows what the United States would’ve been like?” Guarino said.
“We should thank our veterans not only on Nov. 11, but every day,” he said. “It’s important to show them we care.”