NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — Students and staff of West Essex High School (WEHS) opened their doors to honor and remember veterans from North Caldwell, Roseland, Fairfield and Essex Fells on Wednesday morning ahead of Veterans Day.

“This event, where the entire West Essex community gets to give back to our veterans, is an excellent opportunity to honor our veterans and educate our youth,” said WEHS Principal Caesar Diliberto. “So often we can lose sight of what is really important, and it's events like this that remind us what is. I am so proud of our entire staff and every single student today. The West Essex community extends our deepest gratitude to our veterans.”

The event began with a brunch prepared by students from multiple classes and clubs. This included students from the Cooking 4 A Cause Club, the Key Club, Culinary Arts 1 & 2 and Food and Sport Nutrition, who designed the menu, cooked and served brunch to the veterans and invited guests, as students from the WEHS Jazz Ensemble provided background music.

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Following the brunch, the invited guests moved into the gymnasium where the entire student body gathered for the assembly. Diliberto welcomed those in attendance, who enjoyed a Presentation of Colors from the Fairfield Police Honor Guard, which includes all veterans, and a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the West Essex High School band.

Two graduates of West Essex High School were remembered for their ultimate sacrifice, including Fairfield resident Corporal Neal David Epifanio (Class of 1968), who served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam and was killed in action on Sept. 3, 1969.  In honor of his memory, the Fairfield Township Council is ceremonially naming the area of Horseneck Road between Fairfield Road and Plymouth Street as “Cpl. Neal D. Epifanio Road.” Commemorative street signs like the one seen in the photo above will be posted in the area.

Also honored was North Caldwell resident Derek McConnell (Class of 2008), who served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and was injured on July 23, 2011. After spending 278 days in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. and 59 days in the intensive care unit, undergoing 45 surgeries, sustaining several fractures, having both legs amputated and developing sepsis, McDonnell succumbed to devastating injuries two years to the date of his deployment on March 18, 2013.

His mother, Siobhan Fuller-McConnell, spoke to the students on Wednesday about her son’s injuries and the “missing man table,” also known as the fallen comrade table. The missing man table is a ceremonial memorial set up in military dining facilities of the United States Armed Forced during official functions to honor the memory of fallen, missing or imprisoned military service members, she said. A ceremonial table was set up in honor of this during the luncheon and assembly at WEHS.

Keynote speakers, who were all West Essex graduates, addressed the attendees about why they chose to serve in the military and what life lessons they have internalized through their time in the military.

Junior Jativa-Perez, U.S. Marine Corps, a graduate of 2013; Patrick McGinley, U.S. Marine Corps, Class of 1988; and Brian Gallagher, U.S. Marine Corps, a parent of a West Essex student, all shared their thoughts and reasons for enlisting.

McGinley remarked that he “wanted to do something bigger than myself, I needed to challenge myself.”

“The amount of freedom that we have in this country is unprecedented,” said Gallagher. “Less than 1 percent of the United States population joins the U.S. military, be the type of American that is worth fighting for.”

As the president and vice president of the student council, Bardhyl Gashi and Gabriella Benevenga presented ceremonial flowers to the assembled veterans the chiefs of police from the four communities read their names as they addressed the student body and invited guests.

Chief Mark Deuer of North Caldwell, Chief Gary Manna of Fairfield, Chief Richard McDonough of Roseland and Chief William Theilacker of Essex Fells also thanked the veterans for their service as they addressed the attendees.

"I want to commend Mr. Diliberto on organizing this event and working collaboratively with his staff, students, and local stakeholders to recognize our veterans for their service,” said Superintendent of Schools Damion Macioci. “Our school community is thankful for the brave men and women who have made tremendous sacrifices for our country." 

Following the assembly, and the veterans had an opportunity to speak with the students directly as the students returned to their classrooms. The students eagerly asked questions and showed appreciation for the magnitude of the history being presented to them.

WEHS seniors Ava Laglia and Tanner Newby offered their impressions of what they learned from the day’s events.

When asked what she expected from the ceremony, Laglia commented that she “knew it would be inspiring,” but that it was “so much more than what you think the hardship may be.”

“I recognize the sacrifice,” said Laglia. “I have so much respect for these men and women.” 

Newby had expectations of hearing stories of what the veterans “went through” and was “surprised by some of the veterans I knew, but didn’t realize how many from West Essex served.”

“I realize how important the military really is, and the sacrifice is unparalleled,” said Newby. “This should not go unseen.”

More than 30 veterans were recognized for their services during the assembly, including the following veterans who attended:

  • Ron Berger, U.S Air Force
  • Michael Carsillo, U.S Marine Corps
  • Ryan Cleary U.S. Navy
  • Steven D'Argenio, U.S. Navy
  • Karl Dancwerth, U.S. Army
  • Dave Decarlo, U.S. Air National Guard
  • Joseph Ettle, U.S. Navy
  • Frank Fernicola, U.S. Army
  • Michael Fuller, U.S Navy
  • Brian Gallagher, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Dianna Hardy, New York State Guard
  • Al Hughes, U.S. Army
  • Junior Jativa-Perez, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Daniel Kalinowski, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Bob Kessler, U.S. Army
  • Al Longden, U.S. Army Special Forces
  • Edgar Lopez, U.S. Army
  • Derrick Luciano, U.S. Army
  • Brian Maglio, U.S. Air Force
  • Anthony Marchese, U.S. Air Force
  • Andrew Marino, U.S. Army
  • Sean McCormack, U.S. Army
  • Patrick McGinley, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Michael McGlynn, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Tom McGrath, U.S. Army
  • Ira Marootiaii, U.S. Army
  • Mario Monaco, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Robert Palko, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Frank Patierno, U.S. Army National Guard
  • Mike Quinn, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Jesse Schnackenberg, U.S. Marine Corps
  • Doug Syby, U.S. Navy