While many people will spend the day at a barbecue or relaxing at a day off of work, John Matusek will think about those who served. For Matusek, who will turn 97 on May 7 (the day in 1945 that Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces), Memorial Day is more than a holiday.
In 1942, at age 25, Matusek left his hometown of Mocanaqua and the family’s Main Street grocery store for basic training at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, California. He would later be sent to the Pacific Theater in March 1944 during World War II. He worked as a non-commissioned officer, overseeing the distribution of supplies for incoming and outgoing ships.
“I saw a lot of guys come back from these wars without arms and legs. I was lucky,” he said.
Matusek takes one prescribed medication per day and a few vitamins. He never misses a weekend Mass, family event or a chance to shake hands with someone in town.
Once the World War II Memorial opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Matusek said the concept of Memorial Day hit him.
“It was marvelous,” said Matusek, whose brother Joe served in Okinawa, Japan. “To see all of those veterans there — it really touched you.”
Matusek returned to Mocanaqua after being honorably discharged in 1946. He worked in his family’s grocery store along with his brothers and sisters until it closed after 80 years in business.
“I thank God every day that I’m still here,” he said.
The U.S. Veterans Administration estimates that a World War II veteran dies every three minutes — at the rate of about 430 a day.
For those who have recently served, their sacrifices also don’t go unnoticed.
Christopher Reichard, who served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007, said Memorial Day has a special meaning. As a landing support specialist at the Al Asad and Al Qaim air bases in Iraq, he saw countless caskets of war dead.
“Bodies would come and go,” Reichard said of his time in Iraq. He was 22 then.
The Scranton High School graduate came home and worked as a police officer in Ocean City, Maryland. He’s 32 now and a senior at the University of Scranton, where he’s studying occupational therapy.
“Memorial Day is more than barbecues and such,” he said. “I often get ‘thank you for your service,’ so I don’t think the meaning is lost for most people.”
As a student, he serves as vice president of the student veterans club.
“We’re just trying to spread the word on campus,” he said. The group volunteers at the Gino Merli Veterans Center and has even done fundraisers on campus. “Right now, we don’t have many members. We’re really trying to recruit.”
Like Matusek, Reichard considers himself lucky. He’s attending school on the G.I. bill, which only covers the highest amount of any state school. The University of Scranton’s “Yellow Ribbon” program picks up the rest.
He plans to complete an internship at the VA Hospital in Wilkes-Barre upon graduation; then it’s on to
“People should know that people get to spend time with their family and friends on Memorial Day because of the sacrifices of our veterans,” he said.