TOMS RIVER – Imagine if the entire township of Toms River disappeared without a trace.
That’s the image that members of the Rolling Thunder veterans organization want to drive home. The population of Toms River is almost 92,000 people, and that’s the number of American service members who have disappeared in wars since World War II.
Sadly, most people don’t think about the prisoners of war and missing in action soldiers, said Charles Webster IV, vice president of Rolling Thunder Chapter 2. That’s why they’ve been placing a Chair of Honor at various locations in Ocean County. The empty chair represents the memory of those who never came back from war – an empty chair at the dinner table at homes across America.
“We will leave no man behind, and our government has left 92,000 behind,” he said.
He also told the crowd of a few dozen veterans and government officials to imagine the MetLife Stadium, and then imagine every single person in attendance, on the field, in the stands, and working there. Then it might be 92,000.
“That’s how many people don’t have answers about where their family member is,” he said.
The Chair of Honor program was created by the Rolling Thunder New Hampshire chapter, and the word spread, said Steve Schonbaum, a local Rolling Thunder member who enlisted in the Navy in 1980. He finds old chairs and refinishes them. Then he attaches a plaque to them, and makes them look presentable for installation at various public places. A flag, folded in three corners, is placed in a shadow box alongside a Challenge Coin, which gives the definition of a soldier.
“The flag drapes every coffin that comes home,” Webster said. “That chair represents someone who didn’t come home and deserves to have a flag.”
Mayor Thomas Kelaher said that the township was able to have an ideal location for the chair. It is located near the entranceway to the Toms River municipal building, in an alcove surrounded by historical memorabilia and pictures of veterans from town. He said that thousands of people come through the lobby every year and can see it.
Bob Smyth, a field representative from the office of Congressman Tom MacArthur (R-3rd), appeared to present a certificate of special recognition to the group for “outstanding service to the community.”
The group has also installed them in municipal buildings in Berkeley, Lacey, Jackson, and Manchester. They are also at Heritage Restaurant and Rubber Side Down bike shop, both in Manchester. The restaurant also has a Missing Man Table, an empty table with the chair.
Rolling Thunder is a nonprofit, volunteer group that dedicates 98 percent of all donation to other causes, such as scholarships. Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 meets every third Wednesday at the Lacey Community Center at the corner of Lacey Road and Route 9.