LIVINGSTON, NJ — On the same day that Acting Governor of Newark, Sheila Oliver, signed a resolution designating June 12 as “Women Veterans Appreciation Day,” Livingston women in the military and women veterans were honored at the Memorial Oval with a wreath laying ceremony.
Thanks to the efforts of the Livingston Committee for Diversity and Inclusion (LCDI), the township became the first in the state to pay tribute to Women Veterans. The ceremony reached far outside Livingston, with supporters from throughout Essex, Monmouth, Morris and Ocean counties in attendance.
“Not everyone can say that they created a holiday, but that is something we can say proudly,” said LCDI co-chair Billy Fine. “LCDI is honored to have been the first municipality in the state to observe and recognize the importance of Women Veterans Appreciation Day.”
Fine also stated that LCDI “chose speakers who encompassed all perspectives of this initiative to bring their unique insight.” During the ceremony, attendees heard both “tales of tragedy and tales of hope,” he added.
Among the speakers was World War II Navy Veteran Ruth Cross, a Livingston resident who was 20 years old when she signed up and was shipped to Brunswick, Maine. Cross was trained to operate firearms for guard duty and also fingerprinted and photographed soldiers at the main gate and issued passes. She was also part of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), which was signed into law in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the urging of his wife, Eleanor, to bring women into the military.
She said that the two years she spent in Maine volunteering for the Navy was the “thing [she] felt proudest of” in her life. Cross, who still serves her country today by volunteering at the election polls, praised the United States as “a great country.”
Mayor Al Anthony also spoke during the ceremony, noting that 15 percent of the military is currently comprised of women and that the numbers are rapidly increasing.
“A Women’s Veterans Day educates the public about women’s involvement in the military and encourages women to join,” said Anthony, who also expressed pride in Livingston for being the first municipality in New Jersey to honor women veterans.
Other speakers included LCDI member Leslie Wright-Brown, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and an Air Force veteran from a family of several male veterans, and Jenn Stivers, Director of Support Services for Veteran Families at Community Hope.
Stivers explained that many of the 26,000 women veterans currently living in New Jersey are homeless. She noted that one in five women in the military report being victims of military sexual trauma, but that many don’t report it, which often leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), drug abuse and homelessness.
Stivers also stressed the importance of recognizing female veterans, stating that many people think of veterans as men and that women veterans need donations as well. She also noted that although food donations to pantries are greatly appreciated, food stamps do not cover other items such as feminine hygiene products. She encouraged supporters to consider this upon future donations.
Ava Reinfeld, the LCDI member who conceived the idea of a Women Veteran’s Day, told the crowd that Texas is currently the only other state that has issued a proclamation recognizing women veterans. She said that this designation in New Jersey will “empower and recognize women vets.”
Reinfeld, whose mother joined WAVES and served in Algiers chauffeuring General Dwight Eisenhower, also mentioned that women were often disguised as men and used aliases in order to help during the Revolutionary, Civil and Mexican wars. She also pointed out that women did not initially receive combat pay until President Harry S. Truman signed the Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services executive order in 1948.
Reinfeld echoed Stivers’ comments about sexual trauma, stating that her niece was sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Her niece received services from the VA, but was depressed and anxious and ultimately committed suicide. Reinfeld stressed the importance of this proclamation again as she ended her comments by thanking the township for recognizing this cause.
Macen Lantzman, a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet from Livingston, said she decided to join the military when she was only in eighth grade and is heading to Maxwell Air Force base for training; and Captain Margarita Valencia, an active National Guard Captain and Army veteran, said her military career has been incredibly rewarding and has exceeded her expectations.
Valencia, the event’s keynote speaker, grew up in Kearny and joined the army when she was 17. She was in ROTC at Seton Hall, served as a Logistics Officer in Iraq in 2008 and also served in El Salvador. Valencia is a new mom and said she was thrilled to see women veterans being recognized and honored for their hard work and bravery.
Valencia also recognized Reinfeld’s niece, First Lt. Corey Ellen Fefferman, with whom Valencia had been deployed.
“The unification of Fefferman and Valencia shows the true bond the military can instill in people across our great country,” said Fine.
Jill Hirsch, a representative from Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill’s office, presented certificates to veterans and active military members during the service and also presented Cross with an American flag that will be flown in the capitol.
LCDI co-chair Keith Hines, stating that all women veterans deserve respect, asked the crowd to stand in an expression of gratitude toward these women.
“We are grateful to Saint Barnabas Medical Center for donating our lovely wreath currently on display at Town Hall,” said Fine. “When executing our ideas for this, we wanted to do justice by Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, who ran the statewide initiative of this which passed the morning of our ceremony.”
After the wreath was laid in front of the podium, Police Chaplain Dan Martian of Livingston’s Presbyterian Church said it was “a pleasure to stand with unsung heroes who served and are serving our country.”
“They did not let gender hold them back,” said Martian, who then quoted from the John I5:13, saying, “Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for another.”
Fine extended a special thanks to Reinfeld for bringing this issue to LCDI and Valencia for her moving keynote speech. Coincidentally, Valencia recognized the name of Reinfeld’s niece, First Lt. Corey Ellen Fefferman. Valencia had served with Fefferman and the two were deployed together.
“This event had many highs and was a truly humbling experience for me to be a part of,” said Fine. “While I wish I could have spoken with each of you individually for more time, I am honored to have spent the time I did for our period together on a historic Wednesday evening at the beginning of summer.”
Early in the ceremony, Ann Ferriera of Girl Scout Troop 20735 led attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance and a call to arms, and specialist Nicole Tamburro sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” Livingston Police Chaplain Rabbi Lenny Mandel delivered the invocation, speaking about the soldiers who sacrifice their lives to secure their country’s freedom and commending the women veterans for their service. Navy veteran Stephanie Rudy, Information Technologist 2nd Class, led a moment of silence for the veterans who have lost their lives.
Local dignitaries in attendance Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) members Ronnie Konner and Pam Chirls; Deputy Mayor Rudy Fernandez and Councilmen Shawn Klein and Michael Vieira; Frank Arminio of Vietnam Veterans of America; Sgt. First Class Shereka Danzy of the Adjutant General's Office; and Dom Scalise from Senator Cory Booker's office.