TRENTON, N.J. -In a solemn but heartfelt ceremony today, Mercer County honored the memories of three soldiers who gave their lives for their country with a memorial bench and a dogwood tree at the County Veterans Center.
Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes and County and local officials were joined by the family members of three Mercer County heroes-Army Sergeant Eric L. Snell of Hamilton, Army Private First Class Eric R. Wilkus of Hamilton, and Army Specialist Marc Scott Seiden of East Windsor-outside the Veterans Center in Hamilton Township Sept. 28 to remember their sacrifice.
"Today, we dedicate this bench and this symbolic dogwood tree in honor of Sergeant Snell, Private Wilkus, and Specialist Seiden," said Hughes in his address to the soldiers' families, officials, and veterans groups in attendance. "These three soldiers all joined the military service for different reasons, but shared a common goal: a more peaceful, free world."
The memorial site is located directly behind the Veterans Center on Hamilton Avenue. The memorial bench is inscribed with a plaque honoring the bravery and heroism of Sgt. Snell, Pfc. Wilkus, and Spc. Seiden as well as all veterans in the County who served their country admirably. The inscription reads, "In honor of the brave men and women of Mercer County who gave their lives in service of their country."
The white dogwood tree planted at the site is a living reminder of strength, purity, and innocence, virtues shared by all three fallen soldiers.
In addition to the memorial site, the families of the three soldiers were each presented with a Mercer County medal of honor as a small token of the County's gratitude. Sergeant Snell's mother, Mittie White, and father, Arthur Snell, accepted on behalf of their son, Eric; Walter and Sharon Wilkus accepted on behalf of their son, Eric; and Jack and Gail Seiden accepted on behalf of their son, Marc.
Hamilton Mayor Glen Gilmore told the soldiers' families the United States prospers only because of the courage of brave Americans like their sons.
"In Hamilton, we continue to mourn the loss of two great heroes and we share in the mourning of those elsewhere," Gilmore said. "We as a community and we as a nation depend on individuals like these who willingly and selflessly make sacrifices for the good of the world."
Wilkus, 20, was assigned to the 57th Military Police Company, 8th Military Police Brigade and was serving in Baghdad, Iraq, when he sustained fatal injuries on Christmas Day 2006. Wilkus was certified as a rookie firefighter and emergency medical technician after completing a yearlong program for high school seniors run by the Mercer County Technical School and Mercer County Community College in cooperation with the fire academy, according to published reports. He was actively involved in the Whitehorse Fire Company in Hamilton, and considered following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather to become a firefighter.
Snell, 35, who had been assigned to a Brigade Combat Team based in Fort Carson, Colo., was the father of two sons and was a standout high school athlete in Hamilton. Snell was killed by small arms fire during a firefight with insurgents in Baghdad on June 18, 2007. Those who knew Sgt. Snell said he joined the Army to make a better life for his children, despite the fact that Snell had opportunities to further explore acting and modeling as a career.
East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov, who presented the County medal to the Seiden family, also made remarks and called the ceremony "a moment of sadness and reflection but also of pride."
Seiden, 26, a graduate of Hightstown High School, joined the Army several months after the Sept. 11 attacks on America and became an accomplished paratrooper while in the Army. He joined the military to serve his country, according to published reports. Seiden was killed Jan. 2, 2004 during an ambush of his convoy in Baghdad.
Hughes said Seiden, Wilkus, and Snell represented a long tradition in Mercer County of military service and sacrifice, and that they died to preserve freedom.
"I hope that our residents will visit this memorial and reflect on the sacrifices made by our loved ones from Mercer County," Hughes said. "The holes their deaths have left in the fabric of our community will never fully close, but with this memorial, I hope we can take a step toward healing."
Other dignitaries at the ceremony included Ed Mazzeo, Chief of the Mercer County Veterans Affairs; Mercer County Freeholders Anthony Carabelli, Pat Colavita, and Elizabeth Muoio; Mercer County Surrogate Diane Gerofsky; Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello; State Sen. Shirley Turner; Ewing Mayor Jack Ball; former Lawrence Mayor Pam Mount; and a representative from the office of Assemblyman Bill Baroni.