By Karen Zautyk
WEST POINT, N.Y.–
Last Thursday, according to the weather folk, was supposed to be inordinately temperate for early January, but up here, at the edge of the Hudson Highlands, frost was in the air.
From my vantage point, on a terrace outside Eisenhower Hall, I could see the patches of snow and ice still decorating the ground and coating the trunks of trees, and the wind sweeping down from the surrounding mountains and across the deep-blue Hudson was frigid. But your correspondent was surrounded in warmth.
Part of this had to do with delight at visiting the West Point campus for the very first time and gazing out at a vista of hills and playing fields and gothic architecture. Most of it, though, had to do with what was transpiring inside “Ike Hall.”
The place had been transformed into a vast clinic, and throughout the day, military personnel and civilians alike were signing up to donate blood, all of which would be earmarked for U.S. troops in combat, in hospitals, on active duty overseas and stateside. Their families and veterans also benefit.
The Armed Services Blood Program (ASBP), a cooperative effort under the auspices of the Department of Defense and coordinating Army, Navy and Air Force blood-donor drives, has been in existence for 60 years, but odds are most American civilians have been unaware of it.
That changed this year in Nutley, which sent a dozen residents up to the Point last week to be part of the donation effort. Now a dozen may not seem like a large number, but considering the relatively short notice, the fact that this was a weekday/workday, and that it was the very first time Nutley had participated, this was a nice showing.
In fact, the folks running the project at West Point were rather taken aback. “You mean you’re all from the same town?” more than one asked. “You came all the way up here?”
Apparently, it was the first time a civilian contingent representing a single community had participated. Over and over, the military reps expressed their thanks.
Nutley’s participation began at the suggestion of township resident Ed Degeorgis, son of a Navy veteran, who approached Nutley Public Affairs Commissioner Steve Rogers, also a Navy vet, with the idea several months ago.
Last June, Rogers had been instrumental in launching the Nutley Military and Veterans Affair Bureau to serve “all Nutley veterans, those who are active, reservists, and their spouses and children.”
The bureau will focus on “assistance in finding employment, financial planning, educational benefits, counseling for retiring veterans and their families, basic health care check-ups, and assistance with home retention, property maintenance and legal affairs.”
Rogers, the bureau’s assistant director Dan Jacoby and Nutleyite Charly Tedesco took up the challenge of making Degeorgis’ suggestion a reality.
After some complicated logistics and calls to military authorities around the country, Nutley got the official okay for its civilian participation. And at 9 a.m. last Thursday, a township bus (thank you, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mauro Tucci) left the Public Affairs building on Chestnut St. and headed north, arriving at West Point about an hour later.
On board, along with Degeorgis, Jacoby and Tedesco were: Courtney Johnson, project director for the Veterans Bureau; Vinnie Greco, a Navy veteran who served in Korea; Bill Walsh, Army, Korea; Otto Claussen, Air Force vet; Tom Reidy, Army, Vietnam (his son Michael is serving in the Army now); Mary Dudasik, daughter of an Army Air Corps veteran of World War II; Pete Rossi and Jerry Paonessa, neither of whom had been in the military but whose love of country inspired them to donate.
Once at West Point, the contingent signed in, filled out questionnaires and then joined the camo-clad servicemen and women who were filling the cots in the blood-collection area.
Afterwards, there were refreshments, and a little impromptu entertainment. A few of the soldiers, joined by- -for want of a better word, the ASBP “mascot” (see photo)- -performed a line dance to something called “The Cupid Shuffle.” (Note to self: Add “Cupid Shuffle” to iPod).
The hours flew by, and, after a brief visit to the West Point Museum, the Nutley bus (shout out to a great driver, Rich Pelser) was heading south on the Palisades Parkway, the late afternoon sun glowing through the trees like a benediction.
On the bus, the talk was of how the ASBP personnel had been “so appreciative.”
As she greeted the group that morning, Erin Longacre, a blood-drive recruiter from Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., said, “We’ve never had a town before!”
She was helping to coordinate the four-day (it had started Monday) West Point program, and she told us that the troops in Eisenhower Hall who were staffing the event were active military who had come from across the U.S., including Forts Gordon, Bliss, Bragg, Drum and Benning and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Also personally greeting the Nutley contingent was Col. Richard Gonzales director of the Army Blood Program, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Gonzales is a career Army officer who had served in Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom and is the recipient of a multitude of medals. (He didn’t mention that; we Googled him; you should, too.)
When the bus arrived home, the blood donors were presented by Rogers with individual certificates of thanks. “Everyone who had gone was so excited by the experience,” Rogers told us, “ and they all want to do it again.”
Nutley, he said, hopes to make this an annual event — so later this year keep your eyes and ears open for news of planning for January 2014.
In the meantime, if you’d like more information on the overall ASBP, visit www.militaryblood.dod.mil.
On that site, we found a quote from Army Sgt. 1st Class James Lee, injured in Iraq in 2006 when a grenade was thrown into the vehicle he was driving.
“It was a humbling experience to receive blood,” Lee said. “One minute you’re okay, and the next minute, you’re fighting for your life. [The Armed Services Blood Program is] saving lives every day.”