23 honorably discharged, forgotten military veterans given proper burial
The Vietnam Veterans of America New Jersey Shore Area Chapter 12 has identified 23 honorably discharged military veterans and two wives whose cremated remains have been on funeral home shelves for years, some even decades.
Now our heroes are being given a salute to arms and a proper military internment.
The remains were collected from six funeral homes between Monmouth and Ocean Counties and brought to the Manalapan Police Department where a short service was held leading to a proper sendoff and transport of the urns with flags on each one to the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown with three stops in between for a salute to arms at the Hall of Records in Freehold, CentraState Medical Center in Freehold and Prospertown Lake in Jackson.
Most of those being laid to rest are from the Jersey Shore and of the 23, 9 served in World War I, 12 served in World War II, 1 in the Vietnam War and 1 in the Korean War.
Over the year, these veterans and others have been forgotten about or not picked up for a long time.
"We've had one that was left on a shelf for 40-years, 30-years, 20-years and up to 50-years...many, many years and in the state of New Jersey a veteran is considered abandoned if nobody has picked him up," Ernie Diorio, the Vice President of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 12, said.
There's a variety of reasons as to why these veterans have remained on funeral home shelves for so long, some are heartbreaking.
"You're given a lot of stories from family members, some don't want them, some forgot about them and thought somebody else took care of 'em, 'Uncle George took care of em', but they didn't," Diorio said. "As of today, we've buried about 90 veterans and we've brought back 19 veterans to families that picked them up that didn't realize they were still at the funeral parlor."
The escort the veterans received on the way to the cemetery was led by the Monmouth and Ocean County Sheriff's Departments and local law enforcement so that they along with military veterans, boy scouts and the general public can give them a salute at three stops along the way, to thank them for their service, remember them and be there for them.
"It is emotional when you think about it, they have no family members that have claimed their remains and this goes on all over the country, we're just trying to bring attention and awareness to the program, but I will say the outpouring of support in organizations from all over Monmouth and Ocean County has been tremendous," Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden said.
He stressed the importance of raising awareness for the mission of the Vietnam Veterans of America to make sure everyone is aware of what's going on and the importance of honoring our veterans.
"We're going to continue to honor, as we have in the past, these cremains during the cremains project and it's really special and it's a testament to all the veterans organizations that participate and all our community partners and law enforcement and first responders," Golden said.
There were four families who were able to make it to the service at the cemetery including Barbara Gulick whose grandfather, MSGT Joseph Salvatore Merlo, served in the Army during World War II, and along with his wife MaryAnn are being buried at the cemetery together.
Her grandmother retired from work in 1996, the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Barbara says her grandparents were about to move to Florida when on the following Tuesday, her grandfather passed away.
"So that was a shock, and I think it was a shock on her and that's why I think the ashes were never picked up, she was in shock and didn't know what to do," Gulick said.
There was this closeness, a bond between Barbara and her grandparents who watched and helped raise her growing up leading to life cherishing memories.
"They were incredible, he was my best friend. My grandparents, growing up, made sure that we would go to museums and go to the theater on Sunday," Gulick said. "They both worked for the railroad, we lived in Irvington, so you'd just get on the train and head into the city. They were incredible people that gave me everything, an education and made me work hard for it...they're awesome people."
The opportunity to be with her grandparents as they are laid to rest helps bring closure to Barbara and her family but also honor to her grandfathers military service.
"It helps bring closure but it's more I wanted to give him the respect, I just don't think he ever had what he deserved," Gulick said. "My grandmother was a Jehovah witness and she never wanted the flag but after she passed five years ago from Alzheimers. My mother and her son had already passed so once she had passed, I felt it was okay to seek out and try to find the ashes and sort of bring that closure but I just kept hitting dead ends until I got the letter from Rich (Gough, VVA Chapter 12 Representative) the day after Christmas in 2019. I talked to Rich that very day and he's incredible, he met me on the highway two weeks ago because I wouldn't let the ashes out of my sight but he was going to meet me so he could take care of it for the ceremony."
Always with her in spirit and in her heart, Barbara feels her grandfather would be proud of her efforts to help him rest in peace and watching from above at this ceremony.
"I think he'd say, thank you," Gulick said.
Before her grandfather passed away, he gave her a special gift for inspiration.
Our heroes can now rest comfortably in peace watching as so many people remember them and their service to our country.
May perpetual light shine upon them, may they rest in peace and may they watch over all of us from paradise.