Sue Saner couldn’t let her father’s 80th birthday become a milestone that went uncelebrated.
Army veteran and Marlton resident Bill Gershen was going to get a hero’s treatment no matter what. So Saner got her husband, Brandon, her friend Billie Jean Orr, and Jerry Skorch, her father’s best friend and fellow veteran, to help with the birthday she’d been planning since the first week of March to get the surprise just right.
“I wanted my dad to have the best 80th birthday he could possibly have, even with the pandemic going on,” Saner said.
The day included a full-on motorcycle motorcade, courtesy of Warriors’ Watch, that rumbled through Gershen’s neighborhood the morning of July 11. Friends, family, and even local leaders joined the cyclists to greet the day’s honoree in his front yard, as neighbors ventured outside to see what the commotion was about.
“It was nice to see that after we’ve been stuck in the house,” said Alyse Siegeo, who lives across the street from Gershen but had no idea he’d served in the military. “It was wonderful that they did something like this for a local veteran.”
“We heard the noise at first and then we saw the news van, so we had to see what was going on,” added Lauren Geddes. “It was nice to see everyone out here celebrating.”
The newly minted octogenarian was under the impression his family was treating him to lunch at nearby Mission BBQ, a restaurant chain that supports military, police, firefighters, and first responders. The restaurant’s smoke truck was part of the convoy and Gershen was blown away by the crowd awaiting him outside his front door.
“I’ll remember the day for the rest of my life,” he said. “I was in shock for a minute. When I walked outside, I didn’t even know how to react to all the balloons and bikers. But it was fantastic.”
Gershen was 20 years old when he was drafted in 1960. The “original East Side kid” from Brooklyn did his Army basic training at Fort Dix. From there, he was stationed in Europe as part of the 7th Army — notably commanded by Gen. George Patton in World War II — and became a target-acquisition technician who traveled across Germany with what he called “this big old radar dish trying to find targets.”
Gershen’s time with the Army had a lasting impact on him. He got involved in numerous military volunteer groups, like New Jersey’s Mission of Honor, which he does with Skorch. He has laid upward of 700 soldiers’ abandoned cremains to rest with the full honors they’re owed.
“We were finally able to give them a real ceremony,” he explained. “We knew there were veterans whose unclaimed cremains were just sitting in cigar boxes or paper bags in the attics and basements of funeral homes, some for 30 years.”
Gershen is also a life member of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 899, based in Bordentown, as well as American Legion Post 372 in Cherry Hill. He will do the “stand down” in Cherry Hill, which entails taking care of homeless veterans by giving them haircuts, getting their health checked and feeding them.
Being a busy guy keeps him young, which is exactly Gershen’s plan.
“I heard one of the bikers yell out, ’He’s not 80,’ and he’s right: I really try to take care of myself because I feel like I’m supposed to get a lot of things done on Earth before I leave here,” Gershen insisted. “So I try to stay strong and smart as best I can.”
But Saner said her dad is a hero even beyond his rank and service and volunteer work, and she was moved to see him swarmed by so many well-wishers.
“It filled me with such pride to watch him react to everybody waiting outside for him,” she said with emotion in her voice. “Seeing the community rally around him and people coming out from all the buildings around his, my heart was just so full.”
From the parking lot outside his condo, Gershen and his posse for the day made their way to Mission BBQ for a much bigger affair than the intimate family outing he had expected. There, Saner delivered a heartfelt speech to her father before she and Skorch unveiled a hand-carved wooden flag with a particularly poignant significance, made by family friend and another fellow veteran, “Pauly” Paul Chenier, who remade the plaque three times just to get it right.
“On it is the army insignia, his rank and the years he served,” Saner explained. “I wanted him to have something special and I know how much what all the volunteer work he does for the military means to him, and I wanted him to have something to commemorate his involvement.”
The plaque also includes the phrase, “It cannot be inherited nor can it be purchased. I have earned it with my blood, sweat and tears. I own it forever, the title veteran.”
“When I saw the final version, I bawled my eyes out,” Saner admitted. “I wanted to incorporate his life and who he is as a person in that plaque, and it’s beautiful.”
And just as the guest of honor and his well-wishers prepared to head inside for lunch, drinks and cake, the Mission BBQ parking lot erupted with a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a tradition the restaurant observes every day at noon.
“Jerry and I go there a lot of times just to be part of smoothing the flag,” Gershen said. “Every day at exactly 12 o’clock, they do the anthem.”
It was all part of a day that Gershen swears he’ll never forget: “Everyone made me feel like they made me a saint,” he said.
As for Saner, she’s thrilled her dad got the hero’s celebration she knows he earned.
“He called me a couple days later and said that he felt like the king of the world,” she said. “He’s done so much for other people that he absolutely deserved this.”