SPOTSWOOD, NJ - For many Americans, Memorial Day is a day away from school and work. It's the unofficial start of summer across the United States and means picnics, parades and pool openings. However, for military families, Memorial Day takes on a different meaning especially those who have lost servicemen and women in the line of duty.
Memorial Day began following the American Civil War. Then, it was known as Decoration Day with the graves of soldiers being decorated with flowers and flags. Unlike Veterans Day, which honors the military service of all, Memorial Day is a tribute to the lives of those lost in the line of duty.
On this last Monday in May, a statue will be unveiled at American Legion Post 253. The statue will depict Staff Sergeant Michael Ollis. Ollis is the brother of Spotswood resident Kim Ollis-Loschiavo. Her beloved brother was killed on August 28, 2013 in Afghanistan, just two months before he was due home. He was 24 years old.
Ollis' operating base was attacked by insurgent forces. The soldier stepped in front of a wounded Polish officer to shield him from an insurgent outfitted in a suicide vest. The Staff Sergeant, who always wanted to be a soldier like his dad and grandfathers, did not survive. Ollis was awarded the Polish Gold Star Medal of Honor. It's the highest military award the Polish government bestows. The Staten Island native was also awarded the Afghani Star. Posthumously, the United States government honored Ollis' sacrifice and service with the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Silver Star and the Audie Murphy Medallion.
Spotswood Mayor Ed Seely and Councilwoman Marge Drozd were instrumental in helping Ollis-Loschiavo bring the statue of her brother to American Legion Post 253. The statue was designed by Staten Island artist, Gregory Perillo and sculpted by Toms River's Brian Hanlon.
"My family was raised to enjoy all of the American traditions every American enjoys despite the fact that every male role model on both sides of my family has served in the military since the Civil War," Ollis-Loschiavo said in a recent interview. "Memorial Day growing up has always been a celebration of summer; soccer tournaments and spending time with family and friends. When my brother enlisted, we continued our festivities and also took part in Memorial Day parades and honoring Military officers during Fleet Week. My father, who served in the Vietnam War, is quite active with the VFW and American Legion on Staten Island. I have also participated in runs to honor and remember our service members and their ultimate sacrifice. Since my brother's passing, we have, as as family, worked to tell his story and teach other Americans about Gold Star Families. These actions hopefully will build awareness to educate Americans about the strength and fragility of democracy and the importance to protect it at all costs."
Gold Star Families are relatives of armed forces members that have died in the line of duty. While the term became widespread following the Iraqi War, it actually dates all the way back to World War I. The United States Army refers to grieving family members as "Gold Star Survivors." During the recent presidential election, former President Barrack Obama was quoted as saying that "No one has given more for our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families."
Ollis enlisted in the Army at the tender age of 17 upon his graduation from Petrides High School in Staten Island. However, Spotswood was a second home to the soldier as he returned to the borough to spend time with his sister and her family.
"Being able to share Michael's story and his statute has been an overwhelming experience," Ollis-Loschiavo continued. "I am so grateful to our town for welcoming my family and treating us like we have grown up here all of our lives. My family is truly blessed to be accepted into such a patriotic, public serving community that values serving others before themselves. My brother used to visit our town often since the age of 11, and continued to 'come home' to Spotswood on every leave he had. I am blessed to have such fond memories sharing my hometown with him. Michael was a familiar face at the Cambridge Inn and Ryan's Pub socializing with other service members who grew up in the area."
Ollis' ultimate sacrifice received both national and international attention at the time of his death. The family set up the SSG Michael Ollis Freedom Foundation in his memory and to support veterans, their families and veteran-related causes. They will hold their first 5K run and festival on June 10 in New Dorp, N.Y.
"I am truly grateful to Mayor Ed Seely for allowing us to display Michael's statute and share his heroic story", Ollis-Loschiavo said. "I am also grateful to Marge Drozd and Travis and Grace Fryowicz for supporting the idea to get Michael's story told in town."
Ollis' statue was unveiled in a special ceremony on May 29 at American Legion Post 253 on 50 DeVoe Ave. in Spotswood.
"I hope every American realizes freedom is a choice that should not be taken for granted," Ollis-Loschiavo said. "If it was not for our military and their families, who else would step up to defend our freedoms?"