NORTHFIELD — It was a heroes welcome Wednesday night at the Northfield Community School as a bus pulled into the teachers parking lot at nearly 10 p.m. with 21 veterans and their chaperones returning from an Honor Flight of South Jersey trip to Washington, D.C.

The Northfield Volunteer Fire Department arrived and draped a huge flag from their ladder truck to welcome the veterans back. Dozens of students with posters along with parents and friends gathered and cheered as the veterans and their chaperones exited the bus.

The veterans who made the trip were from the Korea and Vietnam eras and hailed from Atlantic and Cape May counties. Some were friends before the bus left at 5:30 a.m. and others were meeting for the first time on Wednesday, Oct. 2. “We are all good friends after today,” said Bill Pettek of Absecon.

Asked if he had a good time, Pettek, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard who served in Vietnam from 1969-1970, said it was one of the best days of his life. He spoke of the trip out of Northfield with a police escort and the welcome the group got when they arrived at Williamstown High School, their first stop along the way.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye — none of us. It was unbelievable; flags waving, the students lined up in the halls cheering, clapping for us and thanking us for our service. I couldn’t believe it,” said Pettek. “Everywhere we went, it was first class.”

When Pettek returned from Vietnam in 1970, there was no welcome or any flag waving. The Coast Guard veteran said many soldiers changed out of their uniforms at the airport to avoid confrontation. “It was tough on guys coming home but today, this was the welcome we never had. Today meant a great deal to me and to all of us. Today a lot of healing took place, and it has restored my faith in our youth. There was a lot of healing that happened today, and I will never forget it,” said Pettek.

Holding a sign and patiently waiting for her soldier to return home, Barbara Pettek gave her husband a hug. Northfield resident Tom Smith thanked veteran Doug Longenecker and listened as the U.S. Army veteran of Korea said, “I have never experienced a day like this in my life; it was more than I could have imagined, all of the children, the other veterans, the monuments, everything was great.”

Mary Ann Devine, a seventh-grade teacher at Northfield Community School and one of coordinators of the Honor Flight of South Jersey, said there were 130 total making the trip once the Northfield group met up with the others in Williamstown. The Northfield contingent of 21 veterans and the chaperones made the one-time free trip to see all of the memorials built in honor of the men and women who have served in the military, compliments of Honor Flight of South Jersey. The funds to cover the cost of the annual trips was raised through an annual Italian dinner.

The veterans who made this year’s trip include:

• Frank D’Alonzo — Northfield

• James Downes — Egg Harbor Township

• Charles Dreher — Somers Point

• Dennis Egan — Swainton

• Donald Griffith — Pleasantville

• Lewis Kishpaugh — Woodbine

• Andrew Klein — Corbin City

• Frank Labletta — Cape May Court House

• Kenneth Laino — Egg Harbor Township

• Douglas Longenecker — Woodbine

• Thomas Messina — Egg Harbor City

• Ronald Pagilaro — Egg Harbor City

• William Pettek — Absecon

• Charles Peyton — Linwood

• Louis Ruggerio — Galloway Township

• John Smith — Dillsburg

• Frederick Spano — Ocean City

• Stanley Sudol — Woodbine

• Edward Vanhee — Oceanview

• Wayne Wilson — Wildwood Crest

• Guards Mary Ann Devine and Thomas Tumelty

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