On Sunday, despite the consistent drizzle, community members lined Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village for the annual Queens Veterans Day Parade. Wearing patriotic clothes and waving American flags, locals applauded the many veterans who paraded past.
The celebration culminated at Christ the King High School, where a veteran's mother, a funeral home, and a World War II veteran were all honored.
The keynote speaker was Valerie Mustafa, the mother of a U.S. Army veteran who died earlier this year. In February, Hassan Sharief Jones, who served tours in Kuwait and Iraq, was killed after getting into a fight that ended in a fatal hit-and run on the Grand Central Parkway.
The 28-year-old Queens native was involved in a fender-bender that night, and was later assaulted, his mother said in an emotional speech. He was then hit by a car and dragged a few hundred feet.
Mustafa remembered her son as a “perfect child for me,” a protector in their home and an outgoing person.
“He was my rock,” she said. “He kept close to me. We had great times together.”
Calling him a proud “momma’s boy,” Mustafa said he grew and learned a lot while in the military. Jones remained in the reserves upon coming home. He studied security management at the TCI College of Technology before he died.
“There was nothing he would not do for you, he was there for you,” Mustafa said. “My son will truly be missed.”
The Humanitarian Award went to the George Werst Funeral Home in Glendale. Since 1991, the home has conducted funeral services for indigent veterans with full military honors. To date, the company has performed 60 burials at Calverton National Cemetery.
The Middle Village Veterans Day Parade Committee selected World War II vet Joseph Martino to serve as its grand marshal. Born in 1927 in Brooklyn, Martino settled in Maspeth in 1951, raising five kids with his wife Antoinette.
Martino was stationed in Japan during his service in World War II. Upon his return, he served as the commander of the VFW Queens Post for four years.
“I never considered myself a war hero, I just did my job,” he said. “The government called me to serve. I was 18 years old, I left high school to go and serve my country.”
At the time, he had three brothers who were also in the service. One of his brothers passed away at age 23, but he and his two brothers survived.
Martino, who considers himself “one of the lucky ones,” paid tribute to his fellow veterans who never made it home from war.
“They come home in a box,” he said, “which is something that hurt me very much.
“I’ll never forget when I came home, they had one deck on a ship with all caskets,” Martino added. “As we passed that deck to go down into our bunks, I guess we all cried. Thank god we got to go home.”
The World War II vet was also honored for his contributions to his community upon his return from service. For 50 years, Martino has been a member of the St. Vincent DePaul Society, where he works with the poor.
A recipient of the society’s Medal of Honor, Martino has worked to help pay the electric, gas and food bills for those less fortunate.
He was also involved with St. Stanislaus Parish, where he has been an active parishioner for 65 years. In 2009, Martino was inducted into St. Stan’s Hall of Fame for his commitment to the parish.
His volunteer work wasn’t limited to just Queens. For nearly 35 years, Martino has also served food at the St. John’s Bread and Life soup kitchen in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He also serves on the soup kitchen’s board of directors.
“I’m 90 years old, and I still go to the soup kitchen. Every year, I cook there for them for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said. “I actually do the cooking. I always was a cook and I always felt I wanted to do something for the poor.”
His commitment to helping those less fortunate runs deep. Martino recalled that for many years, before his wife Antoinette passed away in 2005, they used to wake up at 6 a.m. and visit local bakeries and delicatessens to pick up leftover bread to donate.
In 2001, the couple were honored with a Big Apple Award by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in recognition of their volunteerism. They also received the Carnitas Medal from St. John’s University for outstanding service to the poor.
Martino comes from a family of ten children. He said when he was in school, his father wouldn’t let him eat free lunch because “that was for the poor people.”
“But we were ten kids, we didn’t have much,” Martino said. “Today, I feel as though whatever I give, I’m giving it from my heart because I know what being poor is like.”
The veteran doesn't have any plans to stop giving back.
“My kids ask me, ‘dad, when are you going to stop?’” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to do it until the day I die.’”