The lucky ones: A tale of two vets, at Morris County 2024 Memorial Day Observance

Flag at half-staff, as Army veteran Derek Oates delivers keynote at Morris Memorial Day Observance in Morristown, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


Derek Oates and August Caccavone consider themselves lucky.

Army veteran Derek Oates delivers keynote at Morris Memorial Day Observance, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Oates, 40, survived convoys in Baghdad in 2004 while manning a .50-caliber machine gun on Humvees…and a turbulent return to civilian life.

Caccavone, 98, survived Christmas Eve 1944 in Bastogne, during the Battle of the Bulge, in a foxhole so cold he prayed for the devil to take him because “that’s where it’s hot.”

They shared their stories Wednesday in Morristown, at the Morris County Commissioners’ annual Memorial Day medal ceremony for area veterans.

‘NOBODY WINS IN WARS’: August Caccavone, 98, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He attended Morris Memorial Day Observance, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Thirteen men and women were honored–see their biographies–and listeners heard a special remembrance of Private William Hedges Baker.

The 22-year-old Dover man was killed by a German sharpshooter while attempting to pull wounded soldiers from a battlefield in Plouisy, France, in World War I.

Oates, who grew up on Mt. Kemble Avenue in Morristown, gave the program’s keynote, outside the Morris County Courthouse. Employees evacuated the building prior to the ceremony because of a bomb scare.

Caccavone, a Fort Lee resident who has outlived his wife, children and siblings, watched the warm noontime proceedings from a shaded canopy.

Morris County video of 2024 Memorial Day observance, including Derek Oates keynote:


“The best way we can honor veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice is to help those who are still with us,” Oates said.

Veterans don’t like asking for help, he added. He knows, first-hand.

Keynote speaker Derek Oates (center, tan shirt) with dignitaries, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Responding to the 9/11 terror attacks, Oates enlisted in the Army upon graduating from Seton Hall Prep in 2002. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 82nd Airborne Division.

After his hitch, he missed the structure of military life, and struggled to process what he had experienced in Iraq.

“I was lost. I had to do things there, and I saw things, that I wasn’t proud of,” Oates, the son of former Giants football star Bart Oates, told Morristown Green.

Norus Achtemov and Dominic Sabol of American Legion Post 59 in Morristown after placing wreath at Morris Memorial Day Observance, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Friends were killed in Baghdad. Back home, “I lost twice as many to suicide,” he said, acknowledging the same dark thoughts had crossed his mind.

Oates sought refuge in alcohol. Cops became aware of him, not in a good way. Fortunately, he said, the community reached out. He got help.

“A kind word, a letter, a phone call… that’s why I love Morristown. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to move around. But I always find myself back here,” Oates said.

Now sober for two years, Oates owns a roofing company in East Hanover. He employs two veterans and wants to hire more. He also volunteers with Morris Habitat for Humanity, seeking housing for vets.

If you are a local veteran who needs a hand, Oates said he is ready to help. Call him at 201-486-2164 or email here.  Services also are available at a Morris Township “Community Access Point” opened this month by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

These Morris County veterans received Distinguished Military Service medals from county officials, May 22, 2024. Photo by Karen Fucito.

Caccavone had a smoother re-entry in 1946. Society welcomed back millions of soldiers and sailors from the Second World War, and he settled into a career as a machine operator in the packaging industry.

Bugler Michael J. Del Vecchio plays Taps, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As a captain in the Seventh Army, he had survived bloody fighting in Belgium during the winter of 1944-45. When Germany surrendered, he recounted, his unit began preparing for an invasion of Japan. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.

“I lost a lot of good friends. I’m a lucky guy, coming home alive,” Caccavone said. “Nobody wins in wars.”

He looks remarkably good for a man approaching the century mark. (His secret: “Stay away from doctors!”) His memory may be too sharp, by his account.

Morris County employees outside courthouse after a bomb scare, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I try to forget,” Caccavone said. He likened Bastogne and that long ago December to being inside a refrigerator. Nowadays, “I stay close to my heater on Christmas Eve.”

He wishes Americans had longer memories.

“They’re all forgotten,” he said of fellow troops who never made it home. “Even in schools, they don’t teach about World War II.”

Students from the Lakeview School in Denville sing National Anthem, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He noted that June 6 is the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landing that led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi rule.

This weekend, he hopes everyone takes time to remember.

“Respect those guys that lost their lives fighting for this country. That’s what Memorial Day’s all about. Go to a cemetery, thank a grave where a veteran is buried, and pay your respects. That’s the main thing,” Caccavone said.

But he’s not keen on seeing many more Memorial Days himself. Not the way these so-called United States are going.

A veteran’s family celebrates at medal ceremony in Morristown, May 22, 2024. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s a divided country,” Caccavone said. “I hope I’m not around when something happens, because it’s not going to be the same, I know it.”

Can’t Americans come together, as his “Greatest Generation” did?

“It all depends on the people,” Caccavone replied. “If they want a democracy, or they want a dictatorship. That’s it. It’s up to them.”


Video: WWII veteran August Caccavone tries not to look back…or ahead:

If you’ve read this far… you clearly value your local news. Now we need your help to keep producing the local coverage you depend on! More people are reading Morristown Green than ever. But costs keep rising. Reporting the news takes time, money and hard work. We do it because we, like you, believe an informed citizenry is vital to a healthy community.

So please, CONTRIBUTE to MG or become a monthly SUBSCRIBER. ADVERTISE on Morristown Green. LIKE us on Facebook, FOLLOW us on Twitter, and SIGN UP for our newsletter.