Vineland man always helped other veterans

Henry J. DiMatteo knew how the system worked for veterans and he spent much of his time getting health care for his fellow veterans.

Henry DiMatteo was a proud veteran of World War II, a U.S. Navy man who served in the Pacific Theater in a PT boat, was wounded badly in battle and had the shrapnel wounds in his legs to prove it.

But he believed in the cause and in his country, and he was happy with the medical care he got from the Veterans Administration after the war.

All that helps explain why DiMatteo, who lived in Vineland for 30 years and died last month at 90, spent much of his life in South Jersey the way he did. He was a volunteer who stayed busy for years helping other vets register for VA health care benefits their service entitled them to - but that many of them didn't know they could get until they ran into a different kind of recruiter, an aging vet who just loved helping other vets.

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"He worked with hundreds of veterans - we actually had most of them through our kitchen. ... He had vets come in, and he would sit down and fill out the applications with them," said Pat Fiamingo-DiMatteo, Henry's wife of 20 years. "He dedicated his life to that for a good 10-year period. He'd go to car shows or concerts or other events all over the place ... where he would just meet and recruit veterans."

She added that Henry also "drafted me ... into his Navy" - he really was proud of his service - to write letters that vets needed to get their benefits.

In 2003, Henry was given a Thomas Jefferson Award by the Atlantic City Regional Chamber of Commerce for "outstanding community service and volunteerism." At that point, the chamber said it was honoring him for helping 540 veterans get medical benefits - but his wife said he doubled that total, at least, before he started slowing down a few years ago.

Bill McDonnell figures he met Henry in 2002, when McDonnell was starting a job in Vineland with the state's Veterans Affairs office. He still works at the agency, now in the Trenton area, but he has still never met anyone as dedicated as Henry about volunteering to help vets.

"There's no comparison," McDonnell said. "It's almost like he was on a mission, like he said, 'Now I know how the system works, so I'm going to help other people.' ... Just picture a little, charming guy who was relentless - but he didn't do it in an overbearing way."

John Bernardini, 87, of Vineland, met Henry through the South Jersey chapter of PT Boats Inc., which is partly a vets group for World War II PT boat crewmen. When they started getting together about 12 years ago for meetings every two months, the group had 15 members, Bernardini said. Now, with Henry gone, they're down to three.

"I just know he was a fine, kind gentleman who would do anything for any vet in need," Bernardini said. "He opened doors for guys who had no idea what was available."

His friends, family and admirers added that Henry helped literally open the doors of a new VA medical clinic in Vineland in 2006 - one that could serve many more vets than the old facility, and saved lots of people a long drive to Wilmington, Del., for medical services.

"He wasn't the only person, there were a lot of people who contributed," including elected officials and other vets, said Carl R. Biletta, 80, a Korean War veteran also from Vineland. "But Henry was definitely one of the guys pushing for that clinic."

They met when Henry introduced himself to Biletta and another vet - and Henry asked if they knew they were eligible for VA medical help. A few years later, when Biletta retired from his job, he registered - "because Henry had planted the seed," Biletta said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's an unsung hero for everything he did to help vets take advantage of the benefits that were available to them."

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