By MADDY VITALE
Going into its sixth year, American Legion Post 524’s Veterans Rest & Relaxation Program in Ocean City has provided expense-paid vacations for returning military men and women courtesy of generous donations from homeowners and local businesses.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic forced the shutdown of non-essential businesses, including the many small business owners with shops in the downtown and on the Boardwalk who donate gift baskets, certificates, food and other goodies to the R&R program year after year.
Post 524 veteran Jerry Bonner, who is the chairman of the R&R Program, said the post wants to help out the many generous shop owners who have lost money with closures. Gov. Phil Murphy has signed an executive order allowing curbside pickup to begin Monday at non-essential retail businesses as the state begins to loosen some of the coronavirus restrictions.
However, Bonner noted, the weeks that non-essential businesses were shuttered meant a loss to the merchants to the point that the post, including Commander Bob Marzulli, felt it would not be right to request or receive R&R donations this summer.
Instead, Post 524 members had a better idea.
“We will buy two gift certificates from each of the donors on the list we have from the last six years,” Bonner explained. “We want to support the people – the businesses that shut down and suffered. We want to help service members and help the business owners, too.”
He said the post will use funds from its budget to purchase gift cards from area businesses to give to the R&R Program vacation recipients.
Year after year, the post reaches out to veterans who have been recommended as good candidates for an Ocean City vacation.
Typically, there are a couple veterans each year who come with their families and stay in an Ocean City residence donated by a homeowner.
A police and fire department motorcade, joined by the Legion Riders motorcycle club, leads the way to Post 524 at 46th Street and West Avenue, where legion members, their families and dignitaries await the family’s arrival. There is a ceremony, photos and video taken and tables filled with donated gifts.
While many programs, events and activities have been canceled or rescheduled, Bonner said the R&R Program will still go on.
However, instead of hosting individual events, there will be one for two servicemembers in respect for the busy emergency responders, Bonner noted.
On Aug. 28 and Aug. 29, an Army veteran who is a Wounded Warrior will enjoy a weekend at the shore with his wife and five children, thanks to the R&R Program.
A Wounded Warrior who was a Vietnam combat Marine and lives in Ocean City is donating his home to the Army veteran.
“I told him he didn’t have to since he would lose money by not renting it out,” Bonner said. “He feels so good by helping a fellow service member.”
The other service member is still being selected, Bonner added.
In the coming weeks, Bonner said Post 524 and auxiliary members plan on visiting local businesses and presenting them funds as small tokens of the post’s appreciation for the years of support for the R&R Program.
“We want to support the people who have been supporting us,” Bonner said.
If you know of anyone who may be a good candidate for the American Legion Post 524 Veterans R&R Program, visit www.legion524ocnj.org.