LOWER TOWNSHIP — World War II veteran Joseph Becker needed only one word to describe how he felt Thursday morning when the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs presented him with a Meritorious Service Medal.
“Appreciative,” said Becker, 90, of Glassboro, Gloucester County.
Becker, one of 30 veterans to be honored at a ceremony here at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum, was a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant who saw action during three years in the South Pacific. It almost continued in mainland Japan. President Harry Truman is his favorite president, he said, because of his decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, thus ending the war.
“When they dropped the bomb, I was on a ship headed to Japan. We turned around and went to Hawaii,” said Becker.
Those memories from almost seven decades ago came back on Thursday morning at a ceremony honoring combat veterans from Atlantic, Cape May and Gloucester counties who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.
“This is my 65th birthday present. It feels good, real good,” said Rocco Denote, a retired Lower Township police officer who served in Vietnam. Denote received a Distinguished Service Medal and a Vietnam Service Medal.
Why present medals now, so many years later?
“We do this for two reasons,” said Albert Bucchi, a Vietnam veteran and director of the state’s Division of Veteran Services. “One is to thank the men and women from New Jersey that served. They put on their uniforms and served with distinction and honor,” said Bucchi.
The second, Bucchi said, is that medal ceremonies serve as an outreach program to the state’s 400,000 veterans to explain the various services offered. Bucchi explained such services and how the state has 18 “veteran service officers” just to make sure those who served their country get the government help they earned.
“We will help you navigate the sometimes frustrating Veterans Administration system. We have brought $122 million to our veterans in just the past fiscal year,” Bucchi said.
The rules are constantly changing. Bucchi noted that just recently three more illnesses Vietnam veterans suffer from due to the use of Agent Orange have been added to the coverage. He explained to newer veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan what is available to them, such as transitional homes for veterans to live in while they get back on their feet. There are also three nursing homes in the state for older veterans who may need them.
“Stop by and see what you’re entitled to,” said Bucchi.
There were several speeches before the medals were awarded. Raymond Zawacki, the state’s Deputy Commissioner for Veterans Affairs, said the applause he got at his introduction was more than he received after returning from two tours in Vietnam. The U.S. Navy veteran thanked the war heroes.
“The promise of this republic is only possible because of what you did,” said Zawacki.
Special attention was given to Frank Baumeister, the only one who received the New Jersey POW-MIA Medal. Baumeister, an Atlantic City native who now lives in Hammonton, was a prisoner of war in World War II. He also received a Distinguished Service Medal.
The ceremony was held at a former naval air station that trained World War II dive bombers; 42 of them died in training.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who serves on a Senate committee on veterans’ affairs, tied in the service of the veterans with the greatness of America.
“The United States of America is a unique, exceptional, extraordinary experience in all of known history and civilization. There truly is American exceptionalism,” said Van Drew.
The senator, who is not a veteran, said society owes those who served.
“Medals are nice, but we need to remember we owe them,” Van Drew said.
Naval Air Station Wildwood Director Joe Salvatore reminded everybody that sometimes veterans pay the ultimate price before they can even get to a war.
“We lost 42 naval aviators here during World War II. There were 129 crashes and many injuries,” said Salvatore.
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