By Lauren Wanko
“He lived life with a smile on his face, it was so amazing,” said Marion Zilinski, a mother whose son died while on duty.
Army First Lt. Dennis Zilinski II was killed in Iraq 11 years ago. He was just 23 years old.
“We have two dates on our gravestone,” his mother said. “We have the beginning date that you’re born and the ending date and people get focused on that end date but in between is a dash and that dash represents so much more. That dash is my son.”
Dennis’ friends and family never wanted people to forget the West Point graduate which is why they launched the Lt. Dennis W. Zilinski II Memorial Fund — a volunteer, nonprofit organization that supports members of the Armed Forces and their families.
The memorial fund started 11 years ago with a run. Now volunteers host this event in New Jersey every year but it’s not limited to folks in the Garden State. There are runners in 26 other states and a number of different countries, including Afghanistan.
Major BJ Kraemer was on the West Point swim team with Dennis.
“The class of 2004 — just based on the timing of our graduation and what was going on in the war — we were second lieutenants and first lieutenants deploying immediately and our class lost 14 to the war,” Kraemer said.
Determined to honor and remember his friend and former West Point roommate, Major Alan Van Saun, drove up from Fort Bragg, N.C.
“I think with less than 1 percent of the population serving, it’s important that we active duty, veterans, National Guard, reservists all get out and tell our story so everyone knows the incredible things and the incredible sacrifices that our military, not just the military, but the military families make,” said Van Saun.
The memorial fund organizes five events throughout the year to raise funds for anything our service members need like medical assistance, home renovations and transportation. The nonprofit also offers scholarships to local high school students and supports our nation’s wounded warriors.
“The big thing we’ve been doing is sponsoring service dogs for soldiers suffering from PTSD. We have about 38 that we’ve sponsored to date,” said Captain Matthew Zilinski of the New Jersey Army National Guard.
Last year the memorial fund donated about $400,000 to members of the military community.
“Freedom isn’t free. These men and women don’t sign up because they can’t do anything else in life. Their goal is to maintain our freedom here in the United States,” Marion said.
And now this mother’s goal is to honor and support our nation’s service members because that’s what Dennis would have wanted.