SOUTH PLAINFIELD - South Plainfield’s Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post #6763, assisted by the American Legion Chaumont Post #243, held their annual Veteran’s Day celebration on Saturday November 11th at 11am, the precise day and hour with which World War 1 officially ended in 1918.

“Veteran’s Day is a day of celebration for us who are fortunate enough to be alive,” Commander of VFW and Sergeant at Arms for the American Legion John Jacob Martinez said.  “Veteran’s Day is a good day to meet with friends and commemorate our fallen friends.” 

“Veteran’s Day is a celebration of all veterans,” Robert Bengivenga, Commander of American Legion Post #234 said.  “Today’s a happy day and a way of expressing to one another ‘thank you’.”

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“We can never repay the debt that we have to veterans,” said Mayor Anesh. “But the admiration that we have for them will never be surpassed and I think if we carry that message across to the veterans, they feel the appreciation that we have.”

The ceremony began with a prayer by Chaplain Mike Panza, The Pledge of Allegiance, and the Star Spangled Banner.  There was then a moment of silence as the American Legion Color Guard stood outside beneath the American Flag, drew their rifles and fired into the blue sky in remembrance of those who have died.  South Plainfield High School Senior Kyle Kelly played the bugle call, Taps, each familiar note echoing as veterans and guests bowed their heads in remembrance of the fallen heroes.

VFW Commander John Jacob Martinez opened the ceremony welcoming everyone, especially special guests Senator Patrick Diegnan, Mayor Matthew Anesh, Council President Derryck White, Councilwoman Christine Faustini, and Councilman Gary Vesce.  The American Legion hall was filled with VFW and American Legion members, special guests, family, and friends.

Mayor Matthew Anesh, whose father served in the Navy, addressed those gathered recounting his experience as a young person while his brothers served in the military.

“I had a brother in the Navy and also a brother in the Marines,” said Anesh before the packed hall.  “I remember vividly in high school, the concern of not knowing exactly what was going on, being very grateful that my brother was serving the country, but also worrying throughout each and every day just what that service meant.  So it’s great to have folks that step up and do the hard work, serve this country day in and day out.  We continue to have Veteran’s Day programs and assemblies in the schools to educate young people about the sacrifice the veterans make on our behalf.”

The ceremony continued as speaker after speaker took to the podium to offer inspiring words and grateful sentiments.

“You can see by the gathering here and by the outpouring of this community that we are for you, we are behind you,” said Council President Derryck White to the veterans gathered.  “One of my favorite t-shirts is a t-shirt that says, ‘Home of the Free Because of the Brave,’ and the only reason I can wear that with, so much pride is because of all of you in this room.  From the deepest part of who I am as an individual, on behalf of myself and my family, I thank you, I thank you, I thank you.”

“We’re here to express our gratitude to the veterans,” said Councilwoman Faustini.  “but I always feel that as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them, so we show our appreciation through our acts and through our life.  I want to express my gratitude to the veterans with my highest appreciation.”

“What we have in this country is just amazing,” Senator Patrick Diegnan said. “I can stand out there and call the mayor a name.  He can call me a name.  We can shake hands and go.  It’s something that we take for granted, but it’s because of your service.  We are the greatest country on the face of the earth because you are the greatest people on earth and put your lives on the line to keep our freedom.  All I can do is thank you on behalf of a grateful country.”

“I would just like to thank all of you for your service,” said City Councilman Gary Vesce.  “My father was a veteran and he had a few stories that I know are not pleasant.  I would like to say that without you guys, we couldn’t be up here doing this.  I would just like to thank you for your service.”

The Boy Scouts of Troop 207 were also present at the hall to help celebrate Veteran’s Day.  Boy Scout Joseph Kelly went up to the podium to thank veterans on behalf of his troop.  Then everyone joined in to sing My Country ’Tis of Thee.  

Joseph Vella, 96½ year old veteran of the Navy, was then invited to speak and recounted the history of the United States’ engagement in war and his personal experiences in battle.

The keynote speaker of the day was Army Veteran Joseph Belardo.  Author of “Dusterman - Vietnam, Story of the Last Great Gunfighters,” Belardo described in detail his experience in Vietnam from stories of camaraderie to heartbreak.

“I’ve asked myself for 50 years, what makes a veteran,” said Belardo during his speech.  “Was it the branch of service you were in or the amount of years you served in the military or was it that you stayed statewide or went to another country?  Or was it that you were wounded as a veteran with the physical and mental scars you carry or is it all the medals you wear for the time you were in service?  Or is it the little marker and flag we give you when you die that is next to your headstone?  To me it is far more then just being in the military that makes you a veteran.  It’s the education you receive while serving Uncle Sam and you learn to live with every race, color and creed from across the United States.  It was a political lesson, a social lesson, a cultural lesson, and sometimes a skill set you could not even use when you got home.”

Drafted into the Army in 1968, Belardo explained that he was a Combat Team leader in Vietnam on a weapon called a Duster, a small tank-like vehicle with twin 40 millimeter guns from a Navy ship mounted on either side with the ability to shoot 240 cannon shells one minute in order to desolate the advancing enemy.

“Through the enemy fights, which I was in many, you could hear the bullets pinging off of the Duster,” said Belardo.  “It was like the drum roll in our South Plainfield Band.”

The Duster was considered the most powerful ground weapon in all of Vietnam.  Belardo said that the only problem was that 50% of his body was exposed when he operated the vehicle.  It was Belardo’s job to keep the main roads open and the base camp safe.

“In the war, our track was known by the name the Grim Reaper.”  added Belardo.  “We lived daily on the edge of existence on the combat zone and constantly engaged the enemy in firefights.  We had one or two meals a day and hopefully we bathed monthly like the rest of the grunts on the DMZ.  Our faith was constantly tested and our prayers unanswered.  The endless firefights and death, daily enemy artillery bombardments and body recovery were slowly destroying all our psyche and our physical strength.  Combat would reduce me from a 205 pound gifted athlete on the South Plainfield Tigers Football team to 142 pound fighting machine.”

Belardo chose to then share what he later said was a significant message of his story - the depth of the relationships and the lessons he learned from those he met along his journey.

“Today I would like to single out one soul,” said Belardo.  “This person has a special place in my heart.  His name was Earl, from Texas.  One of my crew members was wounded and we needed a new guy to load the cannon and I had first choice because I was Combat Team Leader.  I needed someone who could load 240 seven-pound cannon shells a minute, the equivalent of 1,680 pounds, an astonishing task for anyone.  Earl was 6 foot 2 inches tall, built like a goddess, and was my first choice.  To my surprise, Earl became the savior of my unit and my battalion.”

Everyone in the American Legion hall seemed to hang on Belardo’s every word as he continued the story.

“Without us knowing, Earl was a bible toting Texas Baptist,” said Belardo.  “He didn’t drink, smoke or curse.  He carried a small pocket bible over his heart that his mom gave him and all he did was speak prayer and scripture and bible verses.  We looked at this guy like, ‘you got to be kidding me.’  I was worried that this gentle giant would not rise to the occasion.”

Belardo then recounted an encounter that he felt changed something in him and the men of his battalion forever.

“In the second week, an incoming artillery shell landed next to Earl and sent him flying about 40 feet in the air,” continued Belardo.  “He landed on his back and sticking out of his chest was a long two foot piece of shrapnel. His clothes were on fire and his eyes were closed.”

Belardo went on to say that as they pulled the shrapnel from Earl’s chest, they realized that it had not pierced their dear friend’s smoldering chest and instead was lodged in Earl’s bible that he always kept in the pocket by his heart. 

“When one of the fellas took the shrapnel out of the bible and threw it on Earl’s chest,” added Belardo.  “It opened up to the 23rd psalm, The Lord is My Shepherd. We knew that God was on our side because we had Earl with us and we needed someone to give us forgiveness.  That night we asked Earl to please have his mom send us all pocket bibles.”

A needed moment of comic relief, Belardo’s story concluded with him noting that he knows at 9:01pm that night the phone would ring, and Earl would be on the other end of the line.  Belardo’s vivid accounts of what it truly was like to be a soldier engaged in horrific battles and forging lifelong friendships along the way was moving for many of those who heard him speak. 

"It is such an honor to have the opportunity to celebrate Veteran’s Day with so many Veterans from the American Legion and the VFW,” said Councilwoman Christine Faustini after the ceremony.  “Their words have been extremely touching and I am particularly grateful for the words of Veteran Joe Belardo.  The stories he shared have impacted my heart permanently.” 

“Already this morning by 9am, I had a dozen calls from my combat friends,” said Belardo later said.  “We were calling each other all day and we always end each phone call with ‘I love you.’  It was a great group of veterans from this crazy unit and was most the decorated combat unit in Vietnam history.  No one knew we even existed, there were so few of us.”

The ceremony concluded with a presentation of flags to many who participated. Chaplain Panza gave a closing prayer and everyone joined in singing God Bless America.

The VFW and American Legion are service organizations meant to help veterans find the support they need.  The organizations preserve the rights of veterans and support each other as only those who share in the common bond forged by their service to the United States’s military can.  From sponsorship of programs in communities, to advocating patriotism, to continued devotion to fellow service members and veterans, the organizations are essential to our communities, but membership is waning, and members ask that veterans from all branches consider joining the organizations.

“Membership is dying,” added VFW Commander Martinez.  “At one time we had over 700 members, now we have barely 140 members.  We do a lot of work.  We go to Lions VA Hospital and we go to Menlo Park Old Soldiers Homes.  We do a lot of things.  There’s programs that are run every year.”

“It’s reaching out to the organizations, reaching out to the community, finding those veterans who are out there that aren’t part of these organizations to make sure that they stay strong and viable,” added Anesh.  “There’s a lot of things that we can do as a borough government as mayor, but we can’t put on a Veteran’s Day celebration without veterans.  We can’t have strong veteran organizations if there are no veterans that are part of that, so we know what our limitation is, but we want to use the influence that we have to go out there and make sure that these days stay what they should be to honor our veterans.”

“If there are veterans out there that would like to join, we’re looking for new members,” added American Legion Commander Bengivenga.  “We meet once a month, which isn’t mandatory.  It’s very helpful to them because if they have any situations, we can help them.  We can help them network and get a job or if they need help getting in touch with the VA Hospital.  There’s always someone here who can help them in some way.”

“There’s several advantages to becoming a member of a veterans’ organization,” said American Legion Membership Chair Richard Tarn.  “A lot of veterans don’t know to go down to the Lion’s Hospital and get a VA card.  Their wives can get involved with the Ladies Auxiliary.  There is a lot of support right here.”

The Veteran’s Day Ceremony ended with a shared meal and everyone dispersed to continue their days enjoying the freedoms that veterans have sacrificed everything to provide, but the meaning of the day stayed with many who attended the service.

“My hope is that all of us carry the gratitude they feel on Veteran’s Day with them every day,” added Faustini.   “And that we remember to thank our Veterans through our example by being the kind of Americans they will be proud to stand for.”

“The word freedom doesn’t ring like a bell,” Belardo summed up the sentiment of the day.  “It doesn’t echo freedom, freedom, freedom.  You can’t find it anywhere in the store and you can’t taste it.  You can’t bring it home.  It’s not on any grocery shelf and it’s not on the new Shoprite in South Plainfield.  You can’t gift wrap it an you can’t hold it in your hands.  Yet we enjoy that special meaning that all veterans provide us and it’s called freedom.”

If any veteran is looking to become of member of the VFW, they are asked to contact VFW Commander Jake Martinez at 908-239-7902.  Any veterans looking to become a member of the American Legion are asked to contact Membership Chair Richard Tarn 908-757-8131.  They ask that callers make sure to leave a message is there is no answer.