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Vietnam veterans John McLaughlin and Joe McLenaghan, both wrapped in Quilts of Valor, receive congratulations from Mayor Leonard Desiderio and South Jersey Quilts of Valor Foundation representative Kathy Tweed.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

It came as a complete surprise to Joe McLenaghan and John McLaughlin what happened to them during Sea Isle City’s Memorial Day ceremony.

During a particularly poignant moment, McLenaghan and McLaughlin were wrapped in a hand-stitched Quilt of Valor to symbolically comfort them from the horrors of war. They had no idea ahead of time that they would be honored.

The presentation to both men, who are Vietnam veterans, was made by Kathy Tweed, a representative of the South Jersey Quilts of Valor Foundation. The foundation makes the quilts for veterans who have been “touched by war.”

“Oh, my God, I almost melted,” McLenaghan said afterward in an interview of the emotional experience of having the quilt draped around his shoulders.

McLaughlin, an Ocean View resident, also spoke of how emotional the quilt presentation was for him and his family. His wife, Vicky, was moved to tears.

“I was proud,” McLaughlin said. “Mostly, I would like to say that I have a good family.”

From left, veterans Harry Strack, Frank Diamond and Chick Haines stand for the playing of the national anthem.

Making the quilt presentation even more special for McLaughlin was that his longtime buddy and fellow Vietnam veteran, Pat Egan, took part in the ceremony.

McLenaghan serves as commander of Sea Isle’s VFW Post 1963. Unknown to McLaughlin, McLenaghan invited Egan to attend the ceremony to share the moment with his close friend.

A standing room only crowd joined with local veterans, city officials, members of the clergy and others to solemnly remember and honor all of the men and women of the U.S. military who have died in war.

“This is the day we remember the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.

The ceremony had been scheduled to take place outdoors at Veterans Park, but was moved inside to the city’s Community Lodge because of heavy rain Monday morning.

Speeches, patriotic songs and the traditional presentation of memorial wreaths decorated with red, white and blue carnations were part of the ceremony.

VFW Post 1963 Commander Joe McLenaghan exchanges a salute with Harry Strack during the presentation of a memorial wreath.

Speakers included McLenaghan, veterans advocate Joe Griffies, the host of the “Welcome Home” radio show, and VFW Post 1963 Auxiliary President Peggy Moore. Myka Morris, 12, a seventh grader, read a patriotic essay that she wrote.

Griffies, a Vietnam veteran, noted that many U.S. teenagers gave up the comforts of everyday life to bravely fight in the Vietnam War.

Even today, nearly 50 years after the Vietnam War ended, many veterans continue to struggle with the transition from their military life to civilian life, Griffies said. He pointed out that around 40,000 veterans, most of them from the Vietnam era, are homeless.

In keynote remarks, Desiderio recalled the sacrifices of countless members of the military throughout the nation’s wartime history – crediting them for securing the liberty and freedom that all Americans enjoy each day.

“I am certain that all of us who are gathered here today will agree that the men and women who lost their lives in the name of freedom should be honored and revered – after all, that is what Memorial Day is all about,” the mayor said.

Veterans advocate Joe Griffies says many teenagers traded their everyday lives to bravely fight in Vietnam.

Father Perry Cherubini, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle, said while delivering the invocation that generations of Americans “stepped forward and did their duty” at times when their country needed them the most.

In doing so, they gave “the most precious gift they had” – their very own lives, Father Cherubini noted.

Appealing to God, he concluded his remarks with the words, “Help us to be worthy of their sacrifice.”

The crowd packs Sea Isle’s Community Lodge for the ceremony.