NEWS | Dec. 15, 2016

New Jersey Airmen and fourth graders bring holidays to veterans

By Master Sgt. Mark Olsen New Jersey National Guard

VINELAND, N.J. -This time of the year, the residents at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial home in Vineland get a special visit.

No, not from Santa Claus.

Every year, for the last 16 years, Airmen from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, team up with fourth graders from Seaview Elementary School in Linwood, New Jersey, to bring the holiday spirit to the Vineland Home residents.

This year was no different

On Tuesday, 18 Airmen and more than 80 grade schoolers sang carols and passed out cards to the Home's residents during the 16th Annual Holiday "Songfest." It also gave them the opportunity to connect with veterans who helped shape this nation's history.

The Vineland residents are a mixture of veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield and veterans' spouses.

"These veterans have a lot of stories to tell; they have done things I never dreamed of doing, just listening to them is an experience," said Staff Sgt. Eiler Gomez Mejia, 177th Logistics Readiness Squadron and Junior Enlisted Council president.

That was the case for Master Sgt. Jamie Nieves, 177th Civil Engineer Squadron, along with 227th Air Support Operations Squadron members Tech. Sgts. Steven Haskins and Kane Lawlor, Staff Sgt. Harry Nieves, and Airman 1st Class John Cucci, when they met resident and World War II Army veteran, Ed Leheny.

Leheny, who is 95, shared with them his story about how he met his brother, Leo, on Christmas day during the Battle of the Bulge. Leheny had not seen his brother since the war began.

The story had appeared in the magazine Veteran Journal and had photos of Ed and Leo in their uniforms. The fact that Nieves, Haskins, Lawlor, and Cucci were close to the same age as the two brothers in the photos was certainly not lost on them; it also gave them a different perspective about Christmas.

"My family is from Alsace Lorraine," said Nieves. Alsace Lorraine was the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the Battle of the Bulge.

As in years past, the Airmen and the fourth graders divided up into groups and travelled throughout the Home singing carols and passing out cards to the residents.

"We met at Seaview; we picked up the kids' donations and brought them here, and now we're going to sing some carols and hand out some cards," said Staff Sgt. Stacey Lazaro, 177th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

Lazaro, the 177th Junior Enlisted Council's vice president, was in charge of coordinating this year's event.

"The 177th is donating $200 to one of the (Home's) ongoing funds, which provides money for the veterans to attend sporting and entertainment events," said Lazaro.

"I think it's a great cause," said Gomez Mejia. "This is the opportunity to give them something back for their service."

This was Gomez Mejia's third visit to the Home.

Up until three years ago when the Junior Enlisted Council took over the visit, Chief Master Sgt. Tim Donovan, 177th Maintenance Squadron and Senior Master Sgt. Michael Monteith, 177th Maintenance Group, had been in charge of coordinating the event.

This year, as in previous two years, Donovan and Monteith lent their vocal talents to the mix. Donovan even boasted about working on his singing through karaoke practice.

While Santa has yet to make his appearance at the home, the meaning of the holidays came early for the residents, the fourth graders and the Airmen.