While approximately 200 Fort Lee residents of all ages waved American flags to fight back the heat in front of the Fort Lee Cairola Barber Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 2342 building on Center Avenue Monday, one absence did not go unnoticed, that of VFW Commander Jimmy Viola.
While Viola, a World War II veteran, was recuperating at Helen Hayes Hospital after two recent open heart surgeries, veterans of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and other historic battles were honored for their bravery and sacrifices to preserve democracy in the U.S. and around the world.
Members of the performed a 21-gun salute, as they have for past ceremonies, but a new addition was the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" by the student choir.
"My friends, it is always great to be in Fort Lee, but let us remember why we are here today," said Congressman Steve Rothman. "Today we celebrate Memorial Day. The day our nation reflects upon the true costs of our liberties and freedom."
Longtime Fort Lee resident and Bergen County Freeholder Joan Voss reminisced about her late uncle, William Voss, a 93-year-old, decorated World War II veteran, who passed just two months ago.
William Voss served on a B-29 bombardier during the war; his plane was shot down over Romanian oil fields in enemy territory. Like many veterans, Voss, who became a prisoner of war, never spoke about his combat and the experiences that followed.
"When he went down, he broke both of his legs, and [physicians] wanted to amputate them," said Joan Voss, who recently learned her uncle was the recipient of many medals, including the Purple Heart. "But ironically, a German doctor in the prisoner of war camp saved his legs. I don't think he ever forgot that. And when he was dying, the last words out of his mouth were, 'Press my uniform, I'm going to join my men.'"
Fort Lee Councilman Joseph Cervieri, who was accompanied by Council members Jan Goldberg, Ila Kasofsky, Armand Pohan and Michael Sargenti, spoke on behalf of Mayor Mark Sokolich and Councilman Harvey Sohmer who could not be in attendance Monday.
After reflecting on the history of Memorial Day, which was originally known as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for the fallen veterans of the Civil War, Cervieri quoted President Obama, saying, "This weekend, folks across the country are opening up the pool, firing up the grill, and taking a well earned moment to relax, but Memorial Day is more than a three-day weekend."
"In town squares like this, people honor those who love their country enough to sacrifice their own lives for it," Cervieri said. "Even as we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we reaffirm our commitment to care for those who served along side them, the veterans who came home. This includes our newest generations of veterans, those from Iraq and Afghanistan [Wars]."
Viola could not be present, but he made sure Senior Vice Commander and host of ceremonies, Tony Leone, presented the parents of 9/11 victim Robert "Robbie" Zampieri with a plaque on the VFW's Wall of Honor.
After the event, his parents, Robert Zampieri, a graduate and practicing dentist in the borough for the past 46 years, and his wife Patricia, were overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and support.
"It shows that they're [9/11 victims] still remembered, and we should never forget that day," said Robert Zampieri. "It’s a place where we can come to see him. We go to a lot of memorials and it's just wonderful to keep him in our memories."
"Always remember that day," said Patricia Zampieri, adding that a scholarship was created in their son's name at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City and has raised more than $1 million. "Never let [9/11] go by and take it for granted. It can happen at any point in time. We lost too many people that day."
But for some veterans, Memorial Day is a bitter-sweet celebration. While Korean-American Kee Kim, a Fort Lee resident who fought with the Korean Army to aid the United States during the Vietnam War, feels honored to be remembered during Memorial Day, he and many of his veteran brothers are disappointed with their lack of medical benefits.
While many American veterans received benefits after they returned home after their tours of duty, Kim claims many Korean-American veterans were short-changed by the U.S. and continue to deal with the effects of Agent Orange exposure, such as liver disease, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental issues.
"Korean-American Vietnam War Veterans fought the same war and live in the United States as American citizens but don't get the same recognition as American veterans," Kim said. "If you're an American citizen and want care, you have to visit Korea. But [Korean-American veterans] can't afford to go back and forth."
The Korean-American Vietnam War Veterans association is currently urging state legislators to support their efforts in providing health benefits to all veterans.