By Gus Ostrum
The family of Navy Ensign John R. Elliott, along with state and local dignitaries including New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (Vice President of International Ironworkers) and Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, formally dedicated a roadside memorial honoring Ensign Elliott on the 17th anniversary of his death at the hands of a drunk driver along a busy stretch of Route 40 in Upper Pittsgrove Township, Salem County.
The memorial was refurbished by volunteers from Bricklayers Local 5 and Ironworkers Local 399 whose officials were part of the moving ceremony held before dozens of attendees on a sun-drenched afternoon. Joining the Elliotts were Richard Tolson, President of The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers/Administrative District Council of New Jersey, and Richard Sweeney, President of Iron Workers Local 399 and himself a victim of a DUI crash.
“Rich Tolson, William Elliott and I got together here one day during a driving rain storm,” said Sweeney, “to discuss what needed to be done to refurbish the memorial, and from there our members did a wonderful job. It’s a great day today to also rename this section of Route 40 for John Elliott, and an honor to be here.”
On July 22, 2000, Elliott was a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy traveling home from Annapolis, MD, to New Jersey for his mother’s birthday when he was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver near Woodstown, Salem County. The man who killed Elliott had been arrested earlier in the evening for a DUI and was released to a friend, only to get behind the wheel of a car again.
William and Muriel Elliott and their daughter Jennifer and her family were present to participate in the dedication. “We are humbled that John is being honored,” William Elliott told the audience, “and we want to make sure everyone remembers this day – not only for the price that John paid, but the price that everyone pays through the perils of drunk driving.”
Sadly, it took this senseless tragedy to spur the establishment of the HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers, created by the Elliott family in their son’s memory. The campaign encourages people to become designated drivers and to toughen penalties for people who drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. HERO stands for Human Education Resource Officer, a title John Elliott obtained while in the Naval Academy. The HERO Campaign has grown into a regional movement to prevent drunk driving in seven states.
Tolson praised the courage of the Elliott family along with the generosity demonstrated by his union members to make this monument a reality.
“The members of the Elliott family are remarkable and courageous,” said Tolson. “And although we came together under these tragic circumstances, we are honored that our own union members were so generous with their time and commitment to this project.”
After burying their son, the Elliotts vowed to do everything they could so that no one else would have to face such tragedy. They turned their efforts toward the legislative process to accomplish their goals. The family convinced local lawmakers to make New Jersey’s DWI laws tougher. The couple lobbied legislators to pass John’s Law in 2001, requiring police to impound the cars of suspected drunk drivers for up to 12 hours. There are about 30,000 arrests for drunk driving every year. A version of John’s Law has been passed on the federal level, and implemented by individual states.