By Donald Wittkowski
Walt Kroeck spent more than three years in a military hospital, endured 57 operations and had 27 skin grafts to treat severe wounds he suffered in battle during the Korean War in 1951.
He lost his right leg to machine gun fire, but on Monday, during Memorial Day services, the 88-year-old Kroeck focused not on himself and his wounds, but on his fellow soldiers who never made it back from the war.
“I lost a lot of buddies,” he said softly.
Kroeck, who lives in Lincroft, Monmouth County, joined with hundreds of other people in Sea Isle City for a solemn Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Park to remember and honor the war dead.
During the ceremony, Kroeck was seated next to 90-year-old Leonard J. Desiderio, a fellow Korean War Army veteran and the father of Sea Isle Mayor Leonard C. Desiderio.
“This is the kid here. He’s only 88,” the elder Desiderio joked to a bystander about Kroeck.
After a moment of levity, Desiderio grew serious and noted that Kroeck was awarded two Purple Hearts during the Korean War for his wounds.
Kroeck has a prosthetic right leg and uses crutches to get around. Recalling some of the hardships during the Korean War, he said he spent his “whole life” living in a foxhole as protection against enemy fire.
During their remarks, speaker after speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony pointed out the myriad sacrifices that Kroeck and so many other American military men and women have made during wartime, including the “ultimate sacrifice” of losing their lives.
Mayor Desiderio told the crowd that well over 1 million members of the U.S. military have died in defense of their country, starting with the Revolutionary War up to present-day conflicts.
“Freedom is not free. Every liberty and luxury we enjoy today comes with the price of sacrifice,” Desiderio said.
Bob Hugin, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate race in New Jersey, said it is simply impossible to “repay the debt” the country owes to veterans for all of their contributions and sacrifices.
“It’s because of their efforts that we do live in the land of the free,” said Hugin, a Marine Corps veteran.
In one particularly poignant moment during the ceremony, Charles Haines, commander of Sea Isle’s VFW Post 1963, read a roll call of honored dead veterans who had ties to the local community.
Bugler Jake Bryan, a Sea Isle Boy Scout, followed the roll call of the dead by playing “Taps.”
“Far too many have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Haines said of all U.S. wartime deaths.
Haines had the honor of accepting wreaths given to him by war veterans and others who participated in the Memorial Day ceremony. He placed the wreaths at the Memorial Fountain at Veterans Park.
One of the people who presented Haines with a wreath was Bill Johnson, a 97-year-old Army veteran of World War II who lives in Sea Isle. Johnson also led the crowd in reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.”
“It’s nice to see everybody standing,” Johnson told the crowd after the flag salute.
Another speaker, former U.S. Ambassador Theresa Tull, a Sea Isle resident, described how compassionate city officials were following the death of a family member, Brian McGinnis, a 23-year-old Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2003.
His family wanted to honor McGinnis by inscribing his name on one of Sea Isle’s memorial benches that line the Promenade. Although there is normally a waiting list and a charge for the inscriptions, city officials waived the fee and placed McGinnis’ family at the top of the list, Tull said.
“It was such a gesture of respect and kindness,” she recounted. “It just meant so much to us all.”
Tull, who is also a former U.S. State Department official, recalled that as a child, she would accompany her father, a veteran of World War I, during his visits to military cemeteries on Memorial Day each year.
She said she always felt the visits were a fitting tribute to the dead, but she also noted the terrible cost in lives caused by so many wars over the years.
“We’ve had too many wars. That’s all there’s to it,” she told the crowd.