They’re a rare breed—go-getters who focus on a challenge and let nothing stop them. The late Mickey Emery of James Michael Ray, Memorial Chapter 818 in Rhode Island and Dennis Beauregard, the present New Jersey State Council president, are examples of these forces of nature. Joining them is John Harrigan, president of Wallkill Valley Chapter 1002 in Vernon, New Jersey.
Inspired by a chance visit in 2008 to the Orange County Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Goshen, NY, Harrigan set out to establish a veterans’ cemetery in Sussex County, NJ. The closest cemetery servicing veterans was three hours away.
Harrigan quickly got the support of his chapter and persuaded members Walt Hazelman and Owen Martin to join him. Harrigan also enlisted AVVA members. Martin, with a background in property searches, located a 66-acre site in Sparta that had been given to Sussex County for use as a shooting range or veterans’ park. The county was not willing to establish a cemetery on its own, but agreed to transfer the title for one dollar to a newly formed non-profit, the Northern New Jersey Veterans Memorial Cemetery. The Freeholders also kicked in $50,000 toward a required $75,000 for maintenance in perpetuity. Donations and fundraisers accounted for the additional $25,000.
Harrigan spearheaded fundraising and in-kind donations. He credits several members of the chapter—particularly Martin, Hazelman, and AVVA member Vernoy Paloini—with helping to stay the course.
“The chapter is fully behind us,” Harrigan said. “We are an active chapter and get forty to eighty members at our meetings, which we hold on Sunday afternoons. The chapter, along with local American Legion and VFW posts, recently donated funds so that we could put up a flagpole at the cemetery.”
In-kind services have come from a variety of sources. Attorney Kevin Kelly has acted as pro bono counsel. Mark DeVenezia of Mulch Concepts has voluntarily cleared and graded the first two sections of the heavily wooded land. Gardell Land Surveying has provided its expertise, gratis. Donations have come from many sources, including $3,000 from the Pompton Lakes Elks Lodge 1895 and $30,000 from the Sussex County Technical School. Local veterans’ organizations also have supported the effort. The New Jersey State Legislature has approved the addition of the cemetery non-profit on the state income tax check-off list.
Harrigan said that there are 150 sets of cremated remains awaiting burial. The cemetery, which will be completed in five phases, will be able to bury 1,600 in the first section and 6,000 in section two, not including cremated remains.
“We hope to have the first interments around Veterans Day,” Harrigan said. “The last hurdle has been a drainage problem, which is being addressed.”
It's “a labor of love,” Hazelman said. “It's all about the veteran and always has been.”
Harrigan, Hazelman, and Martin all point to the emotional aspects of establishing a local veterans cemetery. Martin cited the story of an 87-year-old woman whose husband was buried in the state's veterans cemetery in Burlington County, a three-hour drive from her home. The widow has to limit her trips, due to age and distance. “That's why we need a local cemetery,” he said.
Hazelman said a woman who had her father's dog tags from WWII had asked if the chapter would be willing to bury them under the flagpole when it was erected. They were honored to fulfill her request.
“We're trying to keep the cost as low as possible,” Harrigan said. “fifteen percent of all costs go into the perpetual maintenance fund. That is required in order to keep the cemetery open and running.”