UNION, NJ — The township of Union opened its Veterans Day ceremony with moving videos that included scenes of veterans looking for names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as then-President Ronald Reagan dedicated the wall on Veterans Day in 1982. The video included scenes of soldiers returning home, footage of incursions, funerals and patriotic instances, such as the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima and then-President John F. Kennedy praising the sacrifices of the nation’s armed forces.
After the Union Police Department’s honor guard marched forward and the Pledge of Allegiance was repeated by those in attendance, Gabriella Scott sang the national anthem. Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo thanked both the honor guard and Scott before getting the ceremony underway.
“I’m honored to welcome you here to the 2022 Veterans Day ceremony here at Town Hall. Thank you for joining us here today as we come to acknowledge our veterans,” the mayor began on Friday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m.
After praising the video, he said, “I’d like to take a moment to recognize all of the service members, our veterans, current active-duty service member guardsmen and reservists. Due to your service and your heroism, we come together today on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to acknowledge your sacrifice that keeps us safe.”
In an interview later with Union County LocalSource, on Monday, Nov. 14, Figueiredo said, “It’s so important to honor all of our veterans that have done the hard work and sacrificed to keep us safe and protected, both past, present and future.”
After his opening words on Nov. 11, the mayor then introduced state Sen. Joseph Cryan, Assemblyman Reginald W. Atkins and Union Township Committee members, as well as members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars who were in attendance.
The Rev. Richard Starling then gave an invocation, saying, “We gather together to remember our veterans, whose valor, courage and heroism has inspired us to be more noble, vigilant and thankful. Bless our time here today as we honor them and their families. May we continue to be educated regarding their lives. In solidarity, with love and respect and appreciation we have for them and their families, we show dignity and courage to love and express our deep appreciation for their sacrifice. In your name we pray. Amen.
After thanking the reverend, the mayor then referenced some words by former Secretary of State and U.S. Army officer Colin Powell when he said, “‘Wherever and whenever the nation has called — in times of darkness and danger, as well as in times of peace and prosperity — America’s veterans have been there. Veterans have proudly carried the torch of liberty for all to see.’ I think of the veterans who enlisted without knowing what lies ahead, but did so out of respect and patriotism for our great country. Their sacrifices, often emotional, mental, physical and sometimes even more, must never be forgotten.”
The mayor then pointed out that, due to the lessening of wars on the scale of World War II, Vietnam and Korea, membership to VFWs has declined as a result. He said a wealth of knowledge can be gained from the older generation, although the younger generation also has many newer veterans in police, fire and EMT.
“Let us keep in mind those who left behind their homes, their loved ones, their families and put their lives on the line to serve and protect our great country,” said Figueiredo. “This call to service allows us the privilege to sleep peacefully at night, and it is a privilege that we should never ever take for granted. Thank you again to those who have served, that are here today and that are watching this, and may God bless you and keep you safe, and may God bless the United States of America.”
After the mayor’s moving words, Cryan took the stage and began by saying that one of the privileges he has had as a senator was chairing the Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said there were around 300,000 veterans in the state; more than 90 percent of them are male, and many of them served in the Vietnam War.
“The group of veterans, by the way, that is most constrained by income, that lives on a financial cliff more than any other, are the veterans who served us in the Korean War,” said Cryan, “which by the way is close to my heart because my dad was there. … Veterans sometimes don’t understand all the opportunities that the government has at least tried to provide for their service. … But I do want to make sure that veterans that either hear my voice or that are in this room understand that there are particular services available to you. And they’ve been streamlined for you, which is helpful.”
He then moved on to his next topic: 2-1-1.
Dialing 2-1-1 “will help a veteran in crisis, financial crisis, homeless crisis; all those kinds of things that we talk about and we’re going to continue to talk about until it’s solved,” he said. “But 2-1-1 is an invaluable resource and easily streamlined.
“It is an ongoing focus of the work we do to try to make sure that veterans understand that mental health opportunities are there for them. The number is 9-8-8.
“You deserve the services you’ve earned,” said Cryan. “Hopefully the numbers I gave you can help someone along the way.”
Deputy Mayor Suzette Cavadas then thanked everyone who served in the military, and Committeeman Joseph Florio acknowledged all who served, as well as their families.
“We can never forget the great sacrifice of our armed forces,” said Florio.
Retired Staff Sgt. Robert “Bobby” Leamy, who grew up in Union before joining the military and serving in many capacities, was the guest speaker.
He began by explaining what it’s like to be a young veteran in the township of Union in 2022.
“For me, it’s great,” said Leamy. “I work for a town and a police department that loves its veterans and its veteran community. This town has always respected its veterans, has always had ceremonies for its veterans. A lot of towns have forgotten that.
“But not every veteran is as lucky as me,” he continued. “You return home to a nation that’s grateful, so long as you don’t bother them. … You fought for a country that now makes you fight for everything you deserve. … They are given pills and left to suffer in silence. … The veteran becomes forever lost and forgotten. The veteran is left in the care of the neglectful system. … The freedom of the nation rests on the soldiers of the forgotten. … There are veterans across this nation, this town, that care.
“I did lose four of my veteran brothers overseas in Iraq. Since being home, I’ve lost more brothers to substance abuse and suicide. If you’re a veteran and you feel like you don’t have anywhere to go or anyone to turn to, your local VFWs and other veterans organizations are here for you.”
“I encourage every veteran that is not in local organizations to get involved.”
The next speaker, Vernon Tatum of Bristol Myers Squibb, himself a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, discussed how veterans should be honored and how they can offer a great deal to employers after they have finished their military service.
“We’re developing programs at Bristol Myers Squibb to reach out to veterans and their families so that we invite them in,” said Tatum. “The goal we’ve set for ourselves is to hire at least 200 veterans each year. … So many veterans, when they leave the service, find themselves unemployed. We want to reach out to them. We want to help mentor them. … We share with them what we know about the corporate world. … We help them to become successful and to thrive.
“We also give of our time. We have organizations like Wreaths Across America. … We’re volunteering our time to give back to veterans organizations. … Operation Gratitude is designed to gather up sundries, clothing and give them to our veterans. We help to fund a lot of great organizations.
“We’re giving of our time, talent and treasure. That’s my challenge to anyone who owns a business. Hire a veteran,” said Tatum.
“I challenge you to support the VFWs across the nation.”
The second guest speaker, retired Lt. Col. Debbie Skeete-Bernard, addressed those gathered.
“I’ve been a nurse since 1990 … and now I work at the VA,” said Bernard. She talked about veterans who had killed themselves. “Mental health is an issue. A fallacy that some have is that everything at the VA is free. It is not. To be free, you have to be service connected. The VA does have services, but it is short-staffed. It will come, but it may take time. There’s a 24-hour line that you can call and someone will answer.
“Join the VA, the VFW. Service is the rent that we pay to be on this earth. Service is not because we want to do things. … I do want you to know that there is someone there that cares, but you have to make the effort. There’s a way to ask for help and help will be given.
“There are those of us who care, and we try our best to do for our brothers and sisters. … You can call me if you have trouble getting through to the VA. … I do for my brothers and sisters. Thank you all.”
The mayor called the reverend forth one last time to say a final invocation.
“Heavenly father, we truly appreciate you for the rich time that we have spent in your presence. It was time well spent remembering the sacrifice of our veterans, the love and the care and the support,” said Starling. “May the things that were poured into our hearts today bring forth great fruit. May we take action to do everything within our strength and our power to see that your love is expressed through us to them. We thank you for this time for all of those who are involved. We speak blessings upon their life and their families. And may we work together for a brighter future for all of our veterans and their families.”
Photos Courtesy of the Township of Union