Veterans Day had special significance this year


On Nov. 11, my wife and I attended the annual Veterans Day observance at Veterans Park at the East Brunswick Municipal Complex.

I’ve attended many of these observances over the years as a reporter and observer, but this year was different.

This year, as part of the observance, they were dedicating a memorial paver to our son, Coleman, who served two tours in Iraq and died at his apartment in South River on Sept. 6 of this year. A young woman who was a friend of Coleman’s purchased the paver. Her husband is currently serving in Iraq. I would thank her by name, but I don’t know if I should invade her privacy. She did not seek recognition for her good work, and when I tell her we thank her from the bottom of our hearts, she’ll know who she is.

It was a fine and selfless act on her part, and as she said, “the least I could do.” But she said that with tears in her eyes, both for Coleman and her husband, for whose safety she fears. All she wants is for him to come home to her and their children. The wives, girlfriends and family members of other active duty military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, who all want the same thing, approached us at the service.

My family’s prayers are with them, and I imagine yours are as well.

We sat that evening with local dignitaries and veterans from many wars and listened to the bagpipers and the military brass, and the community chorus, and the speeches, including one by my wife, and we watched the laying of the wreaths. As you can imagine, it all had a special poignancy for my wife and me this year, and these ceremonies will hold that meaning for us every year going forward.

It was something we could not have imagined two short months ago, but will be a part of our lives, every day, for the rest of our lives. Losing a child is like that, I’m told.

But if one good thing can come of this, my wife and I are determined to make it happen.

But first, a bit of background.

When Coleman joined the Army on Sept. 5, 2001, he served in the 173rd Airborne as a paratrooper based in Vicenza, Italy. He jumped into Iraq with his division in the early days of the war and spent a year in that country. He served the rest of his four-year commitment as an opposition force trainer at Fort Polk, La.

He was discharged in 2005, but was a member of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) until Nov. 4, 2008. That meant he could be called back to active duty at any time.

And he was called back in 2007, this time as the gunner on a Humvee providing convoy and base security at Q-West air base in northern Iraq. On this deployment, he was assigned to a unit of the Maryland National Guard, and spent another year in country.

He was discharged on May 10, 2008, but this time when he came home, he found himself in a bureaucratic limbo he could not have imagined.

To make a complicated story simple, most of the members of that Maryland National Guard unit came home to a myriad of services and counseling options that were clearly explained to them, and help was provided if they had trouble navigating the system.

But Coleman did not stay in Maryland, he came home to New Jersey, where there was no one waiting for him, no one to tell him what

services and programs were available.

He fell through the cracks. He had no advocate, no Army machinery to help him find his way through the system. He felt he was literally on his own. He made appointments with the VA to have an ulcer treated and to obtain treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Those appointments were postponed. He was still waiting when he took his own life Sept. 6.

Since then, we have heard from many veterans, young men and women, who fell through the same cracks as IRR soldiers. They live in small towns in Texas, and California, and Delaware. They feel the same country they served so honorably has cast them adrift. And what happened to Coleman frightens them, because I believe they understand what happened to him, and why, better than my wife and I will ever understand.

Still, we are not completely powerless.

Recently, Rep. Rush Holt called me at home one evening to offer his condolences and his services. He has been good to his word, and we are working with his office and senior policy advisers to craft federal legislation or policies to seal those cracks and provide a real safety net for returning IRR servicemen and – women. I will keep you informed of our progress, but I am determined to do everything in my limited power to save as many of these brave young men and women as we can.

I am also working with several members of the New Jersey Legislature — specifically Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon and others — to see what can be done at a state level.

These politicians reached out to my wife and me when we needed it most, and I believe they will honor their promises to help. Even if we accomplish nothing on the state or federal legislative level, we will work to provide a better resource list for returning IRR soldiers. Since Coleman’s death, we have learned of many wonderful programs and organizations that we did not even know existed prior to our son’s death. I’m talking about programs like the Soldiers Project, which provides free psychological counseling to returning soldiers and their families. I’m talking about Vets4Vets, an incredible group that provides confidential peer support for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I’m talking about the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to injured veterans as they transition from active duty to civilian life.

I’m talking about many others, which I don’t have room to name, but which will be part of the resource list we are compiling. When we have done as much as we can, we’ll put that list in the appropriate hands so it can be distributed to returning IRR and regular military veterans so they know a little more about what resources are available to them beyond the Veterans Administration and traditional military support programs.

It seems like there is much to do, and there is. Fortunately, we have the time and motivation to do our part.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of

Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach

him at [email protected].