Each sober face seemed to reflect the national urgency overhanging America for the last few years. There was a sad, determined look in the eyes of the city's most elderly veterans, perhaps remembering their own time overseas and their own risk of death at war.
Although Memorial Day is well celebrated elsewhere in Bayonne during the week leading up to the actual holiday and parade, this event at the senior center May 20 seemed most fitting especially for those veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict, who are now well into their 70s.
But it was not solely a senior affair, as school children from nearby Woodrow Wilson brought their talents to the center to help mark the occasion.
Others like John Baccarella led the Pledge of Allegiance and Vanessa Bryant sang the National Anthem.
For Laura Donovan, the center's coordinator, the ceremony was one more opportunity for generations to come together for a common cause. Elderly citizens could pass on their wisdom while the younger residents of Bayonne shared their nearly inexhaustible energy.
First Ward Councilman Ted Connelly - who has also serves at the chairman of the 2004 Memorial Day Parade - introduced the program with a strongly worded plea for patriotism, recalling the post-Civil War roots of Memorial Day. At that time, there was an effort by a divided nation to stitch together the wounded spirit by honoring the dead soldiers of the North and the South. The day over the years has become symbolic with the heroic efforts of Americans to risk their lives, and sometimes give up their lives, in order to protect freedoms at home.
Although Connelly expressed strong support for America's efforts to curb terrorism throughout the world (a controversial stance in a time many Americans question the wisdom of the war in Iraq), his message for supporting the troops resounded strongly in the clear air, stirring up a passion for protecting freedom, combating aggression, and standing up for American liberties.
"War is hell," he said. But he added that sometimes it is a necessary hell.
Keeping their memory alive
Freeholder Barry Dugan, who serves as chairman of the Freeholders' Seniors and Veterans Affairs Committee, greeted the seniors, the veterans, and others, urging the public to keep alive the memory of those who served. Unfortunately, Mayor Joseph V. Doria, Jr., who was scheduled to speak, could not attend because of illness, and in his place Former Mayor Dennis Collins spoke. He dispelled past notions about the conflicts in Korea or Vietnam, saying that a soldier risking his or her life deserves respect, whether the war is officially declared or not.
"Freedom sometimes costs American lives," he said. "These men and women are in the prime of their lives and risking the supreme sacrifice."
In speaking to the crowd, Rep. Bob Menendez said one of the biggest ongoing issues involves maintaining and enhancing benefits to veterans. While the current administration has committed more of America's young to war, many of the wounded returning from the conflict lack the benefits they deserve for treatment. He said benefits to the older veterans have been cut back.
"It is important to remember that all of these people have risked the ultimate price for freedom," he said. "If they come back wounded, they need to be cared for. All of these veterans gave up a part of their life."
He said it is time for the government to renew its promise to the veterans, and he promised to fight for all veterans.
"We won the fight to life the disabled veterans' tax," he said. "We are now looking to have the veterans' widows' tax lifted, too."
Menendez also said the monument in Washington D.C. to World War II veterans is long over due. "Sixteen million Americans served in that war," he said. "Four hundred thousand gave up their lives. Millions of Americans supported the war effort. It was the defining event of the 20th Century in which we were committed to the common defense. This monument is an appreciation of that sacrifice."
Then, adding to the festivities, the kindergarten students from Woodrow Wilson School paraded in, lifting part of the dark cloud with their songs and their youthful enthusiasm. Many waved American flags, and others wore Uncle Sam-style hats. Several sixth graders read from essays encouraging the support of troops, offering praise to the soldiers struggling in the dusty plains or Iraq or mountains of Afghanistan, the ones "putting their lives on the line."