Roderick White, Mittie White and Arthur Snell stand by a sign dedicating the former Shady Brook Park to their cousin and son Eric Snell and Eric Wilkus June 17, 2017. The younger Snell and Wilkus were killed in action in Iraq a decade ago. On June 17, Hamilton Township rededicated the park to Snell, Wilkus, Omar Vazquez and Keith Buzinski, all township natives who died in battle while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

It rained steadily on the day Hamilton Township rededicated Snell and Wilkus Memorial Park, but family members universally described the event as beautiful.

The June 17 ceremony recognized the ultimate sacrifice paid by four Hamilton natives while fighting for the United States military. It was held almost 10 years to the day since Snell died in combat in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 18, 2007. Snell died six months after Pfc. Eric Wilkus, another Hamilton native, died—on Christmas Day 2006, from injuries suffered in Baghdad.

“Overall, we’re very pleased,” said Mittie White, the mother of U.S. Army Sgt. Eric L. Snell. “The ceremony was very dignified. Even though it rained, it was very well done.”

The township renamed former Shady Brook Park at 27 Reeves Ave. for the two heroes in an October 2007 ceremony.

Walter Wilkus, father of Eric Wilkus, remembers the 2007 ceremony. “It was plain,” he said. “It was cold. They did it in a hurry.”

In the decade since the park became a memorial, two more Hamilton soldiers have been killed while serving the country, and new benches were named in their memory at the rededication. Army Sgt. Keith Buzinski was killed on April 7, 2011, shortly after he returned from leave to Afghanistan. Fifteen days later, Army 1st Lt. Omar J. Vázquez was killed by an improvised explosive device in southern Iraq.

The rededication ceremony filled Vázquez’s mother, Maria, with emotion. “I’m so happy that they haven’t forgotten him, and they keep his memory alive,” she said. “It’s the least we can do.”

Carol and Tom Buzinski speak about their son Keith as Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede looks on June 17, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

The ceremony featured participation by the Marine Corp. League Trenton Detachment Color Guard, the Hamilton Township Patriotic Committee, area clergy, a Hamilton High West vocalist, Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede and township officials, and family and friends of the fallen soldiers.

“As we approached the 10-year anniversary of Eric Snell making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” Yaede said in an address, “we felt that it was a fitting time to not only remember the sacrifice that he, Eric Wilkus, Omar Vázquez and Keith Buzinski made for all of us; but also thought it was an appropriate moment to help reestablish the fact that this park—long known as Shady Brook Park—was dedicated as Snell and Wilkus Memorial Park back in 2007.”

The families have never forgotten their sons’ sacrifices. They are proud of their service, and they hold tight to the fond memories that they have of them. It’s what helps them through tough times, even ceremonies like this one.

Buzinski’s father, Tom, said he and his wife, Carol, depend on one another for help in dealing with their loss. “There are times she might be down, and times I might be down. We’ll see something and it’ll remind us of our son,” he said. “The first thing you do when you wake up is think about him.”

Buzinski wears his son’s dog tags every day, and wears his gold star on his hat when he is at work. “People ask me about it. You have to have a lot of gratitude for those people throughout the history of the United States who have made the ultimate sacrifice so we can have freedom,” he said.

Maria Vazquez looks at the bench dedicated to her son Omar during a cermony June 17, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

* * *

These four Hamiltonians shared a passion to defend their country, that one commonality after each followed a separate path into the Army.

Wilkus

Wilkus understood early the old-fashioned values of respect and hard work, his family said. An altar boy at St. Raphael-Holy Angels and a Cub Scout, he was careful to always be respectful and couldn’t understand when others weren’t. He helped with his father’s side business mowing lawns and would relish the reward of a good payday for working hard. He also worked part-time at Acme and played saxophone in the marching band for Hamilton West.

“On Memorial Day,” Walter Wilkus said, “he used to march in three parades with the band. They was good times.”

Wilkus followed his father. He was a fourth-generation firefighter. He volunteered with the White Horse Fire Company, the same that his dad did. He was certified as an emergency medical technician. About the only thing they couldn’t agree on was football teams—Eric liked the Philadelphia Eagles while his dad was a New York Giants fan.

“He was my little buddy,” Walter Wilkus said. “He did almost anything I did. We fished. We hunted together. I used to go down to Daytona Beach for Bike Week. They’re only there three or four days. One year, we went there, it was 75-80 degrees down there, and when he lands at Mercer (Airport) it’s snowing. He thought that was so cool.”

Wilkus was inspired to join the army after the Sept. 11 attacks. Wilkus joined the army in February 2005, citing the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil as the reason for his decision to serve. He spent a year in South Korea doing military policing, with the Army’s 57th Military Police Company, 8th Military Police Brigade. When the Army asked for volunteers to serve in Iraq in June 2006, Wilkus signed up.

Wilkus was shot in the head in the days leading up to Christmas 2006—it later was termed a noncombat injury. After waiting two or three days because of a sandstorm, the Army flew him to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and Walter Wilkus joined him there. He was by his son’s side when Wilkus died at the age of 20.

Wilkus was buried in Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetary in Arneytown. His funeral was held at St. Raphael’s Church on Jan. 5, 2007. Walter Wilkus remembers the funeral, and appreciated the respect shown his son that day and again more than a decade later at the rededication.

Walter Wilkus and daughter Victoria Wilkus remove the sheet to reveal the new bench in honor of Eric Wilkus. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

“Every intersection between St. Raphael’s and the cemetery, every intersection was blocked by a cop or person with a motorcycle,” Walter said. “It was unbelievable. This one had everything—two ladders across with a banner.”

Snell was killed just over six months later. The 35-year-old father of two had been good at everything he tried. A baseball standout at Hamilton West, he was picked in the 52nd round of the 1989 Major League Baseball draft by the Cleveland Indians. Instead, he went for his education, first to Old Dominion University before finishing his schooling and his playing career at what was then Trenton State College.

“He grew up here and participated in all kinds of sports,” said Mittie White, his mother. “He got scholarships to colleges because of what Hamilton offered him through Little Lads and Babe Ruth and things like that.

“We signed him up at 5 and 6 with Hamilton Little Lads. His father worked with him and he became an incredible player like overnight. Coaches were saying, ‘Which high school is he going to go to?’ It was very, very nice.”

Both White and Snell’s father, Arthur Snell, were in the Air Force. Their military background was something that Eric felt even as he tried other things after baseball and college. He modeled and worked at AT&T before joining the Army.

Snell

“He felt that would be one way to follow and join the military,” White said. “First he was in the Army Reserves and then he decided to do active duty because that would be a way to serve the country and at the same time make a future for his two sons.”

Snell was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal. When word spread about his passing, there was a strong response. White remembers cards pouring in from all walks of life and people that he had touched.

“He was very well liked, a lot like his father,” White said. Snell’s sons have carried on well. His oldest son works in criminal justice in Virginia and is married with a son of his own. Snell’s younger son is a tall and lanky freshman living in North Carolina who athletic like his father was. Snell’s parents keep in touch with their grandchildren, and White keeps tabs on the park near her Hamilton home.

“They’ve really spruced up the place so we’ve been very pleased,” she said. “We go there. I don’t live far from the park. I see that it’s generally kept clean. People that play there, we introduce ourselves, and they’re very happy to be there. They’ve not defaced the signs that are there for Eric and Wilkus. I think the community is very happy with the renovations and the rededication. And the benches are really, really nice. They named two benches after Buzinski and Vázquez.”

* * *

Keith Buzinski found direction in the Army. It gave him structure and purpose that he never seemed to find growing up.

Buzinski

“He tried a lot of different things,” Tom Buzinski said. “He played in a recreational soccer league. He played in Sunnybrae Little League baseball. He played a year in the Hamilton football league and gave that a shot.”

School was tough. Buzinski attended Steinert in 1999–2000 before attending Family Foundation School in Hancock New York, a specialized school that helped address his Attention Deficit Disorder more closely, from 2000 to 2002. He earned his GED from Bordentown Regional School System before moving to Daytona Beach, Fla., to be near his sister, Lauren. He took on odd jobs, but nothing suited him until he decided to join the Army in 2005.

Buzinski served from September 2007 until December 2008 in Iraq, with the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He came back and decided the Army could be a career for him and, in 2009, re-enlisted with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Polk, Louisiana. In October 2010, they deployed to Charkh, Afghanistan. Buzinski, who was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, saw his family while on leave for two weeks. One of Buzinski’s great loves was fishing, his father said. Whenever he was home on leave, they would find a way to go out on a pier and spend time together. Father and son went fishing in Daytona right before Buzinski returned to Afghanistan.

A nearby fisherman asked Buzinski to watch his pole while he went to his car, and he reeled in two fish while he was gone. The fisherman left again later, and Buzinski reeled in another fish.

“They were the only three fish caught that day,” Tom Buzinski said. “That’s one of my last memories, being out there on Daytona on the pier.”

Buzinski was anxious to return to his platoon that was fighting as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On April 7, 2011, he was killed by small arms fire while on patrol; he was on his way back to base. Married with two stepdaughters, he was only 26.

Friends from all over the U.S. attended his funeral. The Buzinskis talked to many of them and learned how much their son was respected as a soldier. “He was becoming a squad leader and the other younger guys were looking up to him and finding direction from him on what they had to do in a combat area,” Tom Buzinski said. “He grew tremendously.”

* * *

Maria Vázquez wasn’t surprised when her son Omar joined the Army. “For Halloween, he used to dress up as a soldier all the time,” she said. “He was always pretending he was a soldier. His toys were GI Joes. He was always into the Army since he was a little boy.”

Vázquez, the son of Puerto Rican parents, had a fierce sense of patriotism. His parents were proud of his love of the United States.

“It’s something we have to do with children,” his mother said. “We have to teach them to love this country. I believe in that so I taught him to be like that.”

Vasquez

As was the case for Wilkus, the Sept. 11 attacks strengthened Vázquez’s resolve to serve, but his mother had one wish for him first. She wanted him to go to college. After he graduated from McCorristin Catholic High School (now Trenton Catholic Academy), he earned an associate’s degree from Mercer County Community College, then a bachelor’s degree in history from Rider University, and finally a master’s degree in liberal arts from Rutgers University at Camden. The David Library at Rider established the Omar Vázquez Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Research in 2014.

“When he was a teenager, he was in everything,” Maria Vázquez said. “He started with baseball, then he was into soccer, then he played football. You name it, he did it. He wrestled at McCorristin. I don’t think he was really into it, but he did it because it was an activity and he wanted to give himself something. He was more into history.

“His professor became his friend because he knew so much about history. He knew more about history than the professor. You can talk to him about history all day, and he has an answer to everything. He was very brilliant, very smart.”

Vázquez joined the Civil Air Patrol in high school and service was always on his mind. He showed his resolve to be prepared for the Army by getting in better shape. He was overweight in high school when he asked his mother to help him. He dropped from a 44-inch waist to 32 by focusing on his diet. “That’s how much he wanted to be in the Army,” Maria said.

Vázquez joined the New Jersey National Guard before enlisting in the Army after he finished at Rider in 2007. He helped new ROTC cadets in a leader’s training course at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 2009 before being stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, as a field artillery officer. He was serving in Operation New Dawn when he was killed at age 25.

osthumously, he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal and the Combat Action Badge.

“When he came home for Christmas, he was so worried about his platoon because he was the leader of that platoon,” Maria Vázquez said. “He was worried because he was so far away and they were all by themselves. I don’t think he even enjoyed his visitation.”

All the soldiers that worked with him said he was a good leader, she said. “I’m very proud of him. He was a good person and he touched many lives. He helped a lot of people, even outside the Army. He was that kind of person,” she said.

The memories are uplifting for her, as was the rededication ceremony that included the addition of benches for her son and Buzinski.

“It’s close to my house to make it better for me,” Maria Vázquez said. “I can go and sit on his bench and read a book and things like that. It’s a beautiful park. I was very happy with the mayor. Mayor Kelly’s words touched my heart. And it was pouring down but everybody was there. We didn’t care. I remember her words. Rain is nothing compared to what these men went through.”

A special memorial is in the works for Veterans Park to recognize the 88 Hamiltonians that the Hamilton Township Patriotic Committee has confirmed have been killed serving the country dating back to the Civil War. The rededication ceremony was another reminder of their sacrifice and service.

“I believe this was an important way to illustrate that Hamilton Township will never forget the sacrifices made by these local heroes,” Yaede said. “So that every time someone comes to Snell and Wilkus Memorial Park they will be reminded that the reason we can enjoy our parks and recreational areas are because of the heroes that gave their own lives to defend our freedom and preserve our peace.”