ROXBURY, NJ – A request that Roxbury erect a street sign honoring a soldier who died in Vietnam is ruffling feathers on the township council, with one councilman asserting “disgusting” politics are at play.
At the heart of the grumbling is the fact that the slain soldier, Jimmy Ohlinger of Succasunna, did not fit the township’s criteria for being honored with a so-called “street blade.” A 2015 policy says people must live in the township at least 20 years to qualify for having their names on the small signs, a stipulation not met by Ohlinger.
The request for the street blade honoring Ohlinger was first made in 2016 by Succasunna resident Patrick White, who knew the young man. Having been unsuccessful in his quest, White came to a council meeting last month to again push for the sign.
Between then and this week, Roxbury Councilman Dan Kline – the council’s sole Democrat - decided to address the matter by crafting a proposed revision to the policy. His resolution would waive the 20-year residency rule in cases of military personnel who "make the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the line of duty."
Kline’s action that did not sit well with Roxbury Councilman Jim Rilee. Although he did not mention Kline’s name while speaking at this week’s council meeting, Rilee said he found it “disgusting” when politicians try to make political hay out of veteran issues and he said he took issue with any implication that adhering to the street blade policy meant dishonoring veterans who didn’t meet the criteria.
“In a rush to show that somebody cares about veterans … the conversation got lost,” he said. “To make it seem like somebody might not care about him (Ohlinger) more than somebody else, I just find disgusting.”
Rilee, who won re-election Nov. 4, hinted there’s been behind-the-scenes discourse related to the street blade matter.
“It’s not often I get on a soap box like this,” he said. “But this one really bothered me a lot because I’ve watched this jockeying for two weeks and it’s really unfair because it’s not about the individual … I think there needs to be a policy put in place and not knee-jerk types of things.”
Before proposing his revision to the street blade policy, Kline discussed the matter with veterans in town, including former Roxbury Councilman Martin Schmidt, a Vietnam veteran who, in 2011, got Eyland Avenue named after Donald Brown, a 19-year-old Marine from Succasunna who died in Iraq in 2006.
Schmidt told the Daily Record in 2011 it took him three years to get the avenue named after Brown. "Any kid that gets hurt in combat, or killed like that, they're kind of our own," Schmidt said, according to the newspaper.
At this week’s council meeting, Kline – without mentioning Schmidt – said he “recently spoke with a Roxbury veteran about how he was able to successfully get a street blade named after Lance Cpl. Brown,” adding “the sum of our conversation was that it’s far more important to honor their individual sacrifice than to count the years to see if they’ve been here long enough.”
Perhaps implying it was Rilee who was turning the matter into a political football, Kline said, “I want to further Councilman Rilee’s point that one of the most disgusting things you can do is politicize the people who served this country. It’s absolutely ridiculous and its very important - for anything we do in the policy and potential legislation - to get the input of the communities it would impact.”
At the Oct. 24 meeting, the council seemed to support altering the policy. In fact, Roxbury Mayor Mark Crowley asked Roxbury Township Manager John Shepherd to “work on” a policy revision that would allow for a street blade honoring Ohlinger.
“If it’s at all possible we will do it,” the mayor told White. Roxbury Councilman Richard Zoschak, at that meeting, also said he was in favor of honoring Ohlinger with the street blade. But this week, he agreed with his Republican colleagues position that more research was in order.
“I think it’s going be a good idea to look into this and see what the vets think about it before we do change the policy,” Zoschak said on Tuesday.
At the end of this week’s meeting, the council did not vote on Kline’s proposed resolution. It asked Shepherd to contact veteran groups in town to get their input.