HAZLET – Sherree Patterson creates memorial wreaths in her Middletown shop, Flower Power. On Sunday, she was proud to make three for the veterans of the VFW Post 4303, which is located on Davern Avenue, off Route 36, in Hazlet. They will be presented in Veterans Day ceremonies Monday.
One of the post’s oldest members is her father, 88-year old John Zemalkowski of Hazlet. He quit high school to enlist in the Army and served in the Korean War and Vietnam. After taking courses to better himself, he earned the rank of Army Major before retiring after 20 years, in 1968.
It may have been a long time ago, but the experience was life-changing and Zemalkowski still likes being in the company of other former soldiers. “This is my home. Every day, rain or shine, I’ll be here,” said Zemalkowski on Saturday, as he sat at the bar among friends. “We have good people here.”
With more than 160 members – about 45 of them active members –the Schaufler-Franzen VFW Post 4303 is a central gathering place for aging veterans in Hazlet, Keansburg, Keyport and Holmdel. Like many other posts, the VFW is struggling to sign up younger veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and female veterans. Right now, it only has two female members, one retired and one on active duty.
The post commander for the past decade has been John Conti, 78, of Hazlet, who served at the tail end of the Korean War. Conti is the owner of the Shore Haven, Mieleville and Holly Hill mobile home parks in Hazlet.
On Monday, the post will hold a small ceremony at 10 a.m. at Veterans Park and present a wreath. The small contingent will then travel to the veterans cemetery at Shorelands Memorial Gardens, off Route 35, to lay the second wreath. Back at the VFW Hall, they will hold their traditional outdoor ceremony at 11 a.m. with the third wreath. “Then we have some food and refreshments, and a lot of guys will tell their war stories,” Conti said.
About 45-50 people will show up for the ceremony, which marks the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when the armistice ending World War 1 began. In 1954, Armistice Day became known as Veterans Day.
“We really don’t go overboard,” Conti said. “If people come, they come. We do our own thing. We don’t look for any praise. We just keep chugging along.”
In town, Memorial Day is a much bigger deal. Memorial Day honors the nation’s war dead. Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans, living and dead, and is a day to thank active members for their service. “The big turnout is on Memorial Day. I think it should be just the opposite,” said Conti. But he said the veterans understand it’s a busy time of year, with school break, the teacher’s convention and the elections straining people’s time. The VFW is satisfied that several local school districts have closed on Veterans Day out of respect.
The VFW recently refurbished its rental hall, putting in new bathrooms and a fireplace. Rentals help fund its scholarships. The VFW participates in the Patriot’s Pen and Voice of Democracy scholarship contests, giving away $3,000 to Hazlet students, $2,000 in Keansburg and $1,500 in Holmdel, Conti said, in addition to funding other scholarships for the children and grandchildren of members and hosting fundraisers. “We give quite a bit of money away,” he added.
Years ago, the VFW threw a big parade, but it turned out to be too costly. “We’d rather give the money back to the veterans in different ways,” Conti said.