Grief, anger dominate tribute after 101 coronavirus deaths in Menlo Park Veterans Home

Family members who lost loved ones during the pandemic that decimated the New Jersey Veterans Home at Menlo Park attend a Veterans Day Candlelight Vigil in Edison, N.J., on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.


By SUSAN K. LIVIO | nj.com | Published: November 12, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — One by one, eight veterans who had been in the military over the last 50 years shared their stories about serving their country and getting through basic training. Some bowed their heads. Others used dark humor when in describing their wartime experiences overseas.

But tempers flared and anger erupted in words and tears as they recounted their latest and toughest battle here on the homefront: the COVID-19 outbreak.

A crowd of more than 120 people gathered Wednesday under a tent and rainy skies in Roosevelt Park, a half-mile from the New Jersey Veterans Home at Menlo Park, where 101 veterans and spouses have died of coronavirus as the outbreak spread uncontrollably for months.

“The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is failing our veterans — our parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings,” said Kimberly Peck, an organizer of the event whose father, Vernon, died at the Menlo Park home during the height of the pandemic.

“What happened at the Menlo Park and Paramus homes should never have happened,” Peck said, demanding that an independent body oversee what went on during the height of the pandemic. “We cannot trust them to police themselves.”

Another speaker, Retired Army Master Sgt. John Welgos, took the audience by surprise when he read a text message from his friend, Brig. Gen. Jemal J. Beale, the former adjutant general who was forced out of his job overseeing the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs last month over the death toll at the Menlo Park and Paramus veterans homes. The CEOs of those facilities also lost their jobs.

Some families have filed notice they intend to sue the state, which runs the facility, for gross negligence. They claim that masks and other protective equipment were not shared and infected people were not separated into separate units.

In the Paramus facility, 89 residents have died, based on lab-confirmed and probable case numbers, according to the Health Department. The federal Division on Civil Rights is investigating the pandemic response at both facilities.

Beale, according to the message Welgos read, said he “retired after refusing to tell untruths” about the pandemic’s response, but did not offer further details. Beale could not immediately be reached for comment.

Murphy replaced Beale with surgeon Lisa J. Hou as interim Adjutant General. She is commander of the Medical Command and the State Surgeon, in charge of more than 6,000 soldiers. She is also a Colonel in the New Jersey National Guard.

Another speaker choked back tears when he talked.

The motto of the United States Air Force is “Aim high ... Fly-Fight-Win,” said Stephen Fodor, who served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972. “Now is the time and place to aim high, take flight, fight and win for the dignity of the respect for which our veterans deserve because they earned it,” he said.

Fodor recalled better times at the Menlo Park home and said he has fond memories of visiting it, being always been impressed with how clean and well-kept it was. But that was before the “doom and gloom" of the pandemic.

“It’s an injustice what happened,” said Gary Thomas, who served in the Coast Guard from 1970 to 1974, as he encouraged fellow veterans to “do what you’ve got to do,” because "us veterans stick together."

Glenn Osborne, a retired Marine with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, delivered the keynote address via Zoom from his bedroom at the Menlo Park Veterans Home. His remarks were met with a heroes' welcome and cheer, as Osborne, president of the Veterans Home resident council, publicized the declining care and dire emergency at the facility when no one from the outside seemed to be aware of how much danger they were in.

Osborne said he was optimistic about the new leadership at Menlo Park and at the state level.

“I did my best to serve those who served our great country in those...pandemic months,” Osborne said. “I come before you with a promise that my role would be to simply help other residents who cannot help themselves."

“I have tried to speak up and by my actions, to tell the truth of what went on within the walls of the Menlo Park Veterans Home. I will continue to do so," he said.

(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.V
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Susan Ivanitski holds a photo of her husband, who died from COVID-19 while a resident at Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home. Ivanitski attended the Veterans Day Candlelight Vigil held in Edison, N.J., on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.