MONTVILLE, NJ – Purple Heart recipients, both from the township and the surrounding area, received a warm welcome and a standing-room only crowd at Montville Township’s Veterans Day commemoration ceremony held at the Youth Center building Nov. 11.

Montville VFW Post 5481 Commander Ken Hanzl had designated the ceremony as a special Purple Heart-honoring time, in addition to remembering and thanking all veterans, and the room was filled with children’s choirs, area veterans, and residents who came to show their gratitude.

Hanzl said the Purple Heart is a combat decoration awarded to members of the armed forces wounded or killed by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy. George Washington created the medal in 1782 for bravery, but only three were awarded during the Revolutionary War. The medal was revived in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday. Retroactive to 1917, 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded, Hanzl said.

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Multiple Purple Heart recipient Joseph Belardo was the guest speaker for the ceremony. Belardo is the New Jersey State Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He said that being a veteran is more than simply being in the military.

“The military gives you the opportunity to learn what it truly means to be an American,” he said. “You learn to live side by side with every race, color and creed from across the United States and in other countries. It was a political lesson, a social lesson, and a cultural experience. It produces an unexplainable inner pride.”

Belardo talked about his family, many of whom had served in the military. He would hear about his uncle at his grandmother’s side; his uncle had been killed on Omaha Beach. In the 1960s he was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam along the DMZ. He became a combat team leader in a specialized combat unit called Dusters.

“A Duster was a small tank-like weapon with twin 40 mm anti-aircraft guns from Navy ships,” Belardo recalled. “It could shoot 240 cannon shells a minute at enemy targets and was the most powerful ground support weapon in Vietnam.”

Belardo’s unit was incorporated into the 3rd Marine Division as a special attachment and became the Marines’ mobile combat team and body recovery unit, fighting alongside the Marines, doing convoy security, mine sweeps, search and destroy missions, perimeter protection, and body recovery at all the combat bases across the DMZ. Belardo said the firefights were endless, and the daily enemy artillery bombardments slowly destroyed his unit’s mental and physical strength. He would pray for his men daily, telling God he would do his best to keep them safe.

When a big man named Earl, a “Bible-toting Texan who didn’t smoke, drink or curse” joined the unit, the men on Belardo’s team thought he was a bit unusual. Earl carried his pocket Bible in his breast pocket over his heart and constantly quoted scriptures and prayed out loud. When Earl got hit by a shell and shrapnel was blocked from killing him by piercing the Bible, Belardo and all his men wrote to Earl’s mother to ask for pocket Bibles for their breast pockets, Belardo recalled.

“At the end of the fifth week, our crew would kneel and pray with Earl daily,” Belardo said. “Our souls and faith were slowly being healed.”

Neil Van Ess, past national and past state commander of the Military Order of Purple Heart also spoke at the ceremony. He is a member of Post 5481; he served in the Army in the 101st Airborne Division during Vietnam as a paratrooper. He was awarded a Combat Action Badge, an Army Commendation for Valor, a Paratrooper Medal and the Purple Heart.

Van Ess thanked the veterans in the room, a “very special group of people,” for “writing a blank check to the United States of America that could have been redeemed with cost of your life. You are special to me.”

Van Ess discussed Montville Eagle Scout Justin Pagano’s Eagle project, a Purple Heart monument located on Horseneck Road near the entrance to the high school. Van Ess said $28,000 had to be raised for the project in a year, and the monument is the first in the nation on a high school site.

The monument is an area with benches and a stone which reads “Dedicated to all men and women wounded in all our wars,” with the symbol of the Purple Heart. (See the photo gallery) Van Ess said that Justin Pagano’s mother Christie told him the day of the Veterans Day ceremony that Justin had visited the memorial a few years back and had spotted a man sitting on one of the benches.

“Are you a Purple Heart recipient?” Christie said Justin asked the man. “No, but I have friends who never came back,” Christie said the man told Justin.

“Nothing touches anyone more than that story,” Van Ess said at the ceremony.

Post 5481 and the New Jersey Military Order of the Purple Heart presented Justin Pagano with a special recognition award for his achievement in erecting the monument, which was accepted by his parents Christie and Dan, since Justin lives in California and was unable to attend.

Hanzl read a letter from Justin that said in part, “This project that started as just another step toward achieving the rank of Eagle Scout quickly became extremely personal and important to me. My hope was to in some small way pay tribute and help all of us remember, ‘All gave some and some gave all.’”

Many Montville Groups Take Part in the Ceremony

Reverend Tom Henion, Jr. of the Montville Reformed Church said an opening prayer. High school senior Jeffrey Gallup sang the national Anthem. The Lazar Middle School choir sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The Trinity Christian School choir sang “America the Beautiful.” Rabbi Mark Finkel of the Pine Brook Jewish Center said the benediction. Resident Nick Sisco led the audience in singing “God Bless America.” The VFW Post 5481 color guard presented the colors: Joe Coll, Chip Cutler, Dom D’Andrea, Jeff Jones, and high school senior Jackson Kroll played the snare drum. Mayor Richard Conklin also spoke.

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