‘Protectors of Freedom’ sculpture garden pays tribute to veterans

The evening lights cast a seemingly magical glow around the Protectors of Freedom.

“Look at the faces on these soldiers, look at them. It’s incredible,” said Ralph Wolff, finance officer for American Legion Post 129.

There are six of them. At 8 feet tall, they tower over a park in Toms River that’s now become their home — and a place for New Jerseyans, and all Americans, to remember the sacrifice our veterans and service members make for all of us. Funded by the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation, the monument was unveiled last year to commemorate America’s entry into World War I.

“We wanted to have a scene that included representatives from the five major conflicts, from our entry into World War I through the present date, and we came up with the idea of a joint rescue mission,” said Jay Grunin, co-founder and chair of the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation.

“They’re having that conversation about the pursuit of freedom, the pursuit of liberty and protecting freedom,” said Brian Hanlon, founder and owner of the Hanlon Sculpture Studio.

Toms River provided the land, while nationally-recognized artist and local Hanlon created the sculptures.

“Each sculpture is custom made from scratch, there’s nothing and then there’s metal armature, clay, which is mud from the earth, into the exact image you’re seeing in bronze,” said Hanlon. “Then we make the mold and from that mold we’re able to cast bronze sculptures, then those sculptures are welded together and patinaed it, because bronze is the same color as brass, like gold. So the brown on there is a color that’s applied by another artist, and then they’re mounted on granite custom granite pieces.

“Ocean County in general has the largest veterans population in the state,” said Grunin. “So it wa only fitting that we do something for the veterans here in our town.”

“I think it’s dedication to country and service above self,” said Maurice Hill, councilman-at-large for Toms River.

Hill served in the Navy for 35 years. Now he looks up at the sculptures with pride.

“I think of the people who are deployed and the people who have left their families behind and are serving this country and this is wonderful tribute to them,” Hill said.

“It’s a great place to come and reflect,” said Wolff. “As a veteran of a very unpopular war as we all know that Vietnam was, I believe that this memorial represents the war fighter in a way that it elevates them above the cause, popular or unpopular.”

The monument is a way to honor not only the brave men who served this country, but it’s a tribute to the many women as well. One sculpture is of a nurse calling out instructions to a Korean War vet.

“Today a significant number of women are in all branches of the military and doing a wonderful, wonderful job,” Grunin said.

“I think this monument brings that awareness to the community,” said Gino Sciorilli, chair for the Ocean County Military Support Committee. “So for example, when a reservist needs to leave for yet another weekend and tell his employer, ‘I need a weekend off,’ because they’re going to do some good work, maybe that employer will have a better idea of what they’re going to do because a story was told based on this monument.”

A story that reminds us to say thank you to our veterans and service members — not just on Veterans Day, but every day.

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