SCOTCH PLAINS-FANWOOD, NJ – On May 30, neighbors of both Fanwood and Scotch Plains will line the streets for the beloved Memorial Day Parade, where the honorary duties of grand marshal will be handled by Vietnam veteran Joe McCourt.
Despite being a member of the parade committee since 1992, McCourt had never assumed the role of grand marshal until now.
“We had a meeting and I stepped out to the men’s room and when I came back I was the grand marshal,” McCourt said jokingly. “Back in October, Mayor Glover asked if I had ever been the grand marshal and I said no, and then they voted and here I am. Quite an honor, quite a thrill, that’s for sure.”
A Brooklyn native, McCourt enlisted in the Army after graduating from Manhattan College in 1967. After attending Basic Training and Advanced Training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he traveled south to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in Georgia.
“In September of 1969 I was reassigned to Vietnam,” McCourt said. “I was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade which was part of the AmeriCal Division. As an infantry platoon leader I was responsible for 30-35 men and our objective was to engage and seek out the enemy.”
As a 24-year-old, McCourt was considered ‘an older guy’ amongst his comrades, where most soldiers were recent high school graduates. He recalls meeting a diverse group of military men, none of which – including himself – were necessarily prepared for actual combat.
“The individuals I worked with came from all stratas of society. They were inner city, they were suburban, and they were rural, but we were able to form what I thought was a cohesive union,” McCourt recounted. “Once the bullets start flying you have to react. I would say in my particular case, I was fortunate. I found the experience to be very challenging from a personal standpoint – in that understanding what my capabilities were capitalizing on the training that I received from Officer Candidate School and then applying that to leadership of 30 plus men in combat.”
After a one-year tour of duty, McCourt returned to the States where his supporting family and friends welcomed him with open arms. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals for Valor, the Army Commendation Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, and the Parachutist Badge. In 1971, the veteran mainstreamed back into society as a filing equipment salesman and eventually entered the computer technology field.
McCourt bought a house Scotch Plains in 1977, and later joined American Legion Post 209 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10122, which he believes are an integral part of the community.
“The basic mission(s) of those two are one in the same, in that we provide support for veterans and share the camaraderie associated with military service. We are also active in the community in that we provide scholarships and tutorials in the middle school and the high school usually around Veterans Day to talk about our experiences,” McCourt said.
A man who wears many hats in the community, he describes himself as fortunate more than anything else. McCourt hopes to preserve the true meaning of Memorial Day by reminding residents of its purpose.
“For me, the focal point for the Memorial Day weekend events is the Memorial service that takes place at 10 a.m. prior to the parade. There we have the opportunity to reflect on what Memorial Day is and give thanks to those individuals who gave their lives in service to America.”
“Joe has always made sure that the integrity of the parade remains that the focus is on the veterans and it is a day to remember,” Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said. “The parade and the presentations have to remain true to what the occasion is. It’s a solemn occasion to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
“He’s truly the veteran’s veteran. Joe’s out there all year looking after veterans. Joe’s there with those families and with those individuals giving support,” Scotch Plains Mayor Glover added.
Together, the three have faith that the 2016 Memorial Day Parade and Concert will record the largest attendance to date.
Approximately 7,000 locals will participate in the weekend’s events, with the 5th annual Memorial Day Concert taking place on Sunday, May 29 followed by the parade on Monday, May 30.