90° under the sun. That is what it was today around 3 in the afternoon in Roselle Park.
It also happens to be the average temperature in Iraq and Afghanistan in early summer – it gets hotter than that in July and August.
Imagine being in the latter locales standing post in uniform of one of the Armed Forces – some need not imagine it, having been there. Now imagine being in America with no shelter or food having served your country – for some over 7,000 homeless veterans in New Jersey, that is a reality.
There are those who suffer with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or substance abuse or psychological issues as a result of military service and end up on the outskirts of society – forgotten.
Operation Chillout, along with The Veterans Chamber of Commerce-NJ, Roselle Park Fire Department (RPFD), and Roselle Park First Aid Squad (RPFAS) understand the plight of those who returned home with no real place to call home anymore.
As part of their mission, Operation Chillout holds a Summer Drive to collect bottles of water, sun screen, clothes, and other toiletries for homeless veterans to help distribute them in conjunction with various partners throughout the state, including police departments in various cities.
Veterans Tom Wicklow, who served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and Tony DeStefano, who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, from Operation Chillout want to continue their service not only to their country, but to their Brothers in Arms.
Tony said about Operation Chillout, “We want to help our military brothers and sisters come back home.”
“After Afghanistan,” Tom recalled, “I found myself looking for a purpose and in seeing the plight of those who could have been serving with me, I realized helping them helped me.”
Tony agreed, stating, “It is as cathartic for me as it is for those we help. There but for the grace of God go I.”
Tom and Tony understand that it takes more than food and clothes; it takes providing temporary shelter, social service programs, and assistance with getting veterans their rightful benefits – but the basics are not only the first step, but also a necessary one. From helping a veteran continue his education after getting him off the streets and providing housing assistance to finding mattresses and box springs for a family of a veteran just holding on.
Today, Roselle Park gave back to those who gave service to their country.
“Every bit counts and we want to thank Roselle Park for what the community does to help out, “said Tony, adding, “We use Guzzle to go throughout the state to deliver to our homeless vets.”
When asked about Guzzle, he noted that it is the ambulance the municipality donated to Operation Chillout.
RPFAS volunteer and Veterans Chamber of Commerce-NJ representative Kevin Murphy said, “I was fortunate enough to get in touch with the right people in 1976 when I returned. As a disabled vet and having a father who was a POW, I know how important it is to have the right help. We’re working to have the Veterans Chamber of Commerce become a a clearinghouse for a lot of veteran-related issues.”
Council-At-Large Carl Hokanson, who served during Vietnam, also holds such programs close to his heart. He stated, “You had to have served to understand. It’s one for all and all for one. This is just an extension of the Soldier’s Creed; Never Leave A Man Behind.”
Councilman Hokanson added, “You know the line from Backdraft, ‘You go, we go’? That’s what this is. We’re still here for our Brothers and Sisters in Arms and they are not alone.”
Donations came in from residents and organizations such as the Rotary Club of Roselle-Roselle Park, Knights of Columbus, the Central Jersey Leathernecks along with businesses such as Clifton Savings Bank, Investors Savings, and ATA Martial Arts in Springfield. ATA Sensei Greg Delano was dropping off cases of water bottles, explaining he was having his students help out to understand how to help and be part of the community. He remarked, “Also, it’s a way to give back to those who served. Those who gave the most to their community.”
As the afternoon drew to a close, those who volunteered to collect for the day, almost without instruction, formed a production line from the tent where the donations were to the truck that would deliver them to homeless veterans and, from one to another, passed off water and boxes and backpacks, helping each other out to help out those veterans in need.
Just like Brothers in Arms.
Donations of water bottles, summer clothes, and other items will continue until Labor Day. Anyone who could not donate today but would still like to offer items can contact Operation Chillout through their web site (link) or by stopping by the RPFAS Station House Sunday through Friday 7:30 p.m. until 11 at night.