The event, called "Armed Forces Appreciation Day," was designed to celebrate the efforts of those who served and those who are still serving their country, said Senior Center Director Bruce Bigg.
Dr. Jack Smith, one of the dozens of Bayonne residents serving in the military, has become a kind of symbol of Bayonne patriotism, a larger-than-life figure that reminds people of the rich history Bayonne has played in its service to the country.
Smith is currently serving his second tour of duty in a war zone. Two years ago, he served in a medical unit in Afghanistan, and recently he was sent to serve in Iraq in a similar capacity.
Smith's brother, Mark Smith, director of the Bayonne Police Department, spoke on Jack's behalf before a crowd of schoolchildren, senior citizens, politicians and area residents.
A call to service
As with many people, Jack Smith's life changed dramatically after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
"That day, he ferried over to Manhattan to do triage. I saw my brother early in the day and had a brief discussion with him about his going over to Ground Zero," Mark said. "As the day went on, our role in Bayonne changed. We were going to be set up as a foreword triage area to help the hurt. As it turned out, most of those who were injured didn't survive, so we began to help those who did, here in Bayonne."
Mark saw Jack later in the day and realized that the events of 9/11 had had a significant impact on him. Jack felt he hadn't done enough, and he later approached the family to say that he had enlisted in the United States Army and had taken a commission as a captain.
"He needed to do something to make a difference. Jack is the type that commits to taking action," Mark said.
So Jack joined the Army Reserves and was called to duty in October 2004 to serve overseas in the medical combat unit.
Jack later said he was motivated by the great need to support the young men who were on the front lines fighting. After reporting to Fort Benning, Ga. for retraining in combat medicine, he was deployed to Afghanistan.
Although he expected to take care of wounded soldiers, Dr. Smith soon realized that he had an even larger role in helping a war-torn nation heal.
Civilians came from miles around to his triage area to receive medical help. Dr. Smith did not turn them away, instead organizing volunteers in local villages to help people, often traveling via armored convoy to remote villages.
Sarah Cruz, a Bayonne High School student who is a part-time employee in Dr. Smith's Avenue C office, said Smith seems to like people.
"He always comes in and says hello to everybody," she said during a brief interview.
When Smith returned from Afghanistan, he was promoted to the rank of major.
During the 2006 Memorial Day Parade, when a member of one of the parade's participating bands collapsed due to heat, Dr. Smith rushed from his position in the parade to help the child.
"My brother is in Iraq today," Mark Smith told the assembly at the Senior Center. "He is stationed outside of Baghdad. But thanks to modern technology, we can communicate by e-mail frequently. I had the opportunity to speak to him by phone, and I asked him what I should say. He said I shouldn't talk about him, but the men and women who are there with him."
Mark pointed out that, like many who had served in prior wars, those in Iraq and Afghanistan are young men and women ages 18 and 19 who felt strongly about the need to serve their country. But he also pointed out that many are like his brother, who are older and have left families behind in order to serve.
"These are people who are carrying on the tradition in Bayonne of service to our country," Mark said.
Then he paid tribute to those veterans who had gathered at the Senior Center.
"I never had the opportunity to serve in the military, but I do understand that the opportunities we have here for a great education and career choices came to us on the sweat, tears and, often, the blood of those who served," he said.
'Fighting for our ideals'
Colonel Stephen J. Hines, deputy commanding general of the 42nd Infantry Division, tried to explain the motivation that causes young people to put themselves at risk when they serve their country.
"They are fighting for our ideals and our values," he said. "We honor them because they give and have sometimes made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our core values so that we can remain free."
An example of the continuing tradition of patriotism in Bayonne, Travis Artz Grodzickyi, a Bayonne High School student, talked about the military tradition in his family. His great-grandfather, who died in 1998 at the age of 100, fought in World War I, and his grandfather fought in World War II. Grodzickyi said they were inspirations to him, and reminders of the men and women who fight in ditches, dodging bombs and bullets, sometimes never coming home.
Mayor Joseph Doria said ceremonies like the one last week are important because the public should never forget the sacrifices made on their behalf by those who served.
"We are proud of these people and what they have done and are doing to protect us," he said.
Although numerous officials spoke, including Councilmen Vincent Lo Re and Anthony Chiappone, Assemblyman Louis Manzo, Nicholas Chiaravalloti and former Freeholder Barry Dugan, perhaps the most powerful address came from County Surrogate Don DeLeo, a veteran of the U.S. Army, who has become a staunch advocate for veterans.
"We have veterans who are coming home wounded in body and mind," he said. "We must spare no expense to make certain they have the support they need to take their place back in our society."