WEST ORANGE, NJ — A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced West Orange’s annual Veterans Day ceremony to go virtual, residents and former military members once again gathered on Main Street to observe the day on Nov. 11. Town historian Joseph Fagan said at the ceremony that the event is almost as old as the day itself; a municipal medal that was awarded to an unknown veteran in 1920 was on display at War Memorial Park.
“Many federal and state medals were issued for those who served during World War I,” Fagan said at the ceremony. “It was rare, however, for a town to recognize veterans in the same manner. West Orange was one of the few towns to issue municipal medals to its returning veterans. The gratitude as indicated on that 1920 medal has never waned, and that sense of duty and spirit of patriotism has carried us forward to this day.”
According to Fagan, 150 men from West Orange fought in World War I in 1917; 28 were killed. Those 28 people’s names are inscribed on a bronze plaque at War Memorial Park. The surviving veterans formed VFW Post 376 in 1921; the post is still in town and this year is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Post Commander Kim Ameli presented a plaque from the national VFW, which will hang in Town Hall. According to Ameli, the only records left from the forming of Post 376 are the original registration cards and one group photo of the 27 founding members. Ameli also recognized current members of the organization, including 99-year-old Peter Longo, a decorated World War II U.S. Army veteran. Longo is the last living World War II veteran in West Orange.
Other Post 376 members recognized at the ceremony were Al Hughes, a former Army sergeant; Michael Lisa, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War; Domenick Tutalo Jr., a Vietnam War Army veteran; and Vietnam War Army veteran Michael Rella. Ceremony host Joe Brennan, who is an Army veteran from the Vietnam War, was also honored.
“Some veterans served in noncombat roles. Others served on the front lines. They all stood together to preserve freedom and democracy,” Elks Lodge No. 1590 co-Chairperson James Cowan said in his speech at the event. “We pause to remember the soldiers, pilots, sailors and marines who served. We are always in their debt. Let us advocate for them and support them when they need it.”
Bishop Doug Adams, from the JOY Church of God in West Orange, is a Navy veteran himself. He encouraged all forms of service when he spoke at the ceremony.
“We have plenty of young men and women who are currently serving,” Adams said. “Service for them became part of their lives. Service is what we were trained to do. What these veterans have shown us is that they served selflessly. They have learned how to serve excellently. Find a place to bring your service, selflessness and excellence. When it’s all said and done, this is our home, and it’s our responsibility.”
The members of West Orange High School’s Air Force Jr. ROTC program were at the ceremony; Fagan pointed out that future veterans should be honored as well.
“We can feel, but cannot utter words, to describe our emotions about those who have served our country and are willing to give their lives for us,” Fagan said. “We can only find consolation in the knowledge that their service and sacrifice is not in vain. It is both our duty and obligation on this day to honor all our veterans — past, present and future.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic