Vetwork, Lacey’s Veterans Charity Restores Trust After Employee Arrests

Before his death on May 31 – Memorial Day, as fate would have it – 78-year-old Lacey resident Thomas Ralph Mariano’s last wish was to be buried with military honours.

There was a problem for the family of the U.S. Army veteran, who served in Vietnam and rose to the rank of sergeant: His DD 214 form, which proves military service and discharge status, could not be found.

Mariano’s daughter, Maja Meighan, contacted the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

“They said, ‘It’s going to take us two weeks,'” she says.

It was too long. Distraught, she contacted Vetwork, a Lacey-based charity for veterans founded in 1984.

“They got Dad’s form right away,” Meighan said. “The funeral home was shocked they got it so quickly.”

Military Foot Stone for Thomas Ralph Mariano, a Lacey Veteran

Vetwork learned that Mariano took out a home loan through The Brick’s VA office, which had a copy of his DD 214 form on file. Mariano received a military funeral and his 16-year-old grandson – Meighan’s son – received the American flag draped over the casket.

“The whole thing was breathtaking,” Meighan said. “My son has it in his room now.”

The anecdote is an example of Vetwork’s mission, which has become much more difficult recently. In October, the former Vetwork director and two former employees were indicted after they were accused of collectively stealing more than $30,000 from the nonprofit from early 2018 to mid-2019, according to the office. from the Ocean County District Attorney. There is now new leadership, but restoring Vetwork’s reputation will not happen overnight.

“We’re still rebuilding trust,” said newly installed director Joe Starkey, a 45-year-old Toms River resident who served in the Marine Corps for 26 years. “It’s a very slow process to get the community to trust you again. By showing what we are doing, by being transparent, it is slowly starting to come back. But it’s not there yet. »

Good jobs, bad cash flow

Starkey said Vetwork assists about 60 veterans in Ocean County each month, primarily through a free ride and food delivery service.

“I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and Vetwork took me through all of my radiation treatments,” said Larry Swanson, a 66-year-old Toms River resident who served in the Marines from 1973 to 1978. “I don’t drive anymore and I have a lot of health problems, so I go back and forth to the doctors a lot. They (the Vetwork drivers) are always on time to take me to my appointments. They also helped me with the food.

Ken Trube, a 72-year-old Barnegat resident who served in the Navy from 1967 to 1971, said Vetwork drove him to VA appointments in Philadelphia and Marlton, Burlington County.

“I use a scooter to get around, and they even picked me up with the scooter,” he said. “They send my driver (to Barnegat) with frozen food from local restaurants, and that really helps. I’m on social security and it’s not going far.

Marine Corps veteran Steven Geiger of Toms River (right) receives a car donated by Vetwork.

Starkey, which has spent more than 4,000 hours flying military helicopters, said Vetwork sees itself as a “one-stop shop” for low-income veterans who need any type of service. But he faces budget constraints in the wake of the scandal.

Vetwork has five paid employees, including two drivers, who are overseen by a volunteer board of directors. The nonprofit’s 2020 tax returns show its employees received a total of $96,669, it raised $132,000 in contributions, gifts and grants, and it cited $155,000. $ in expenses.

“We continue to have a cash flow problem,” Starkey said. “We are not able to help veterans as much as we should.”

Starkey said Vetwork was funded largely by a $200,000 annual grant from Ocean County, but that stopped with the arrests. According to the Ocean County District Attorney’s Office, the former Vetwork office manager has pleaded guilty to third-degree robbery and is awaiting sentencing while the cases of the other two defendants remain unsolved.

The situation hangs over the head of the charity. Vetwork’s efforts to line up food trucks for an upcoming fundraiser hit a speed bump when a food truck owner backed out due to controversy.

“We were like, ‘Wait; we all have new people,” Starkey said. “The bad taste is still there.”

However, there is no question of closing because the need persists.

“There’s a great community for veterans,” Starkey said. “We don’t want to close that door.

For more information about Vetwork, visit

Jerry Carino is a community columnist for Asbury Park Press, focusing on Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at

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