Jim Vigilante likes praise as much as any other guy, but the man wearing camouflage gear isn't suited up in his Air Force Reserves uniform and collecting Valentine's Day cards from students at Eastlake Elementary School in early February to garner compliments.
"That is all about the veterans," he said, referring to the ultimate recipients of the students' creations. "The ones still out there, the ones in the hospital [including wounded Parsippany vet Derek McConnell]... they are the ones we should be thinking about."
He is equally determined to send glory into another direction when men and women throughout Parsippany offer their thanks for his 2011 five-month stint loading and unloading military planes in Afghanistan. When given a citation from Mayor James Barberio in late fall, he demurred.
"The honor belongs to the greatest country in the world," he said. "The most important thing to me is serving my country, family & friends."
A single dad, business owner and longtime Parsippany resident, James Vigilante has been doing exactly that for years.
Born in Dover, the fitness advocate and motorcycle enthusiast grew up in Par-Troy, making his way through Northvail Elementary School, Central Middle School and Parsippany High School. Over the course of his life, it appears Vigilante has taken on a series of challenges that have guided his journey.
More than a quarter-century ago, he started his own residential construction business. Vigilante also owned an exterminating business "that I sold a few years ago."
Making his way through the business world didn't give the young man enough of a challenge. Nearly 20 years ago, he floated the idea of becoming a public servant using humor as a springboard.
"I was at Congressman Dean Gallo’s Funeral in 1994 and I was joking with a few sitting councilmen about running," he recalled. "They laughed at me and said I [could] never win. So I ran against them and the rest is history."
He adds that the amused council members, who he would not name, remain close friends of his to this day. As a member of Township Council—and also in his capacity as Republican committeman—Vigilante's focus has been to serve the public by keeping taxes low and maintaining town services.
Vigilante said he found government work "interesting," but another challenge called.
"My dad was a Marine and I was always fascinated by history and how men and women would sacrifice their lives for others. It made me want to do the same," he said.
Vigilante decided to join the U.S. military and, specifically, the U.S. Air Force Reserves, where he continues to work on assignments each month. In time, he was promoted to the rank of Master Sergeant.
"I've worked in nuclear missile silos, load and unload cargo planes and recently have been promoted to First Sergeant of the 514th AMDS Medical clinic at Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst," he noted.
Afghanistan presented Vigilante with some serious challenges.
"It was hot and dusty, and it smelled. Worst place I have ever been, best experience I have ever had," he said, pointing out that his work abroad had its blessings too. "I was at a NATO base and was introduced to many other countries' militaries and their cultures.
"The people made the difference."
While overseas, Vigilante shared his experiences and lessons learned via a blog on Patch.
Working as a First Sergeant in the Air Force Reserves is probably the perfect job for him, Vigilante mused, because it allows him to help those in need.
"Helping people inspires me," he said, and he said Afghanistan gave him a real opportunity to serve at the most basic level.
"I know nothing about [working for a] medical clinic, but my job [was] to take care of the doctors, nurses, medical technicians and all," he recalled. "Whatever they need I help them."
Before returning from his most recent visit to Afghanistan, Vigilante told Patch via email that he sometimes felt like "that Radar O'Reilly from 'M*A*S*H,'" because he would circumnavigate all manner of supply channels to get medical personnel the things they needed to save soldiers' lives.
Now back at home, Vigilante is still looking out for his fellow soldiers. He's taken on the challenge of visiting schools with U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-26) to collect Valentine cards for veterans. During his school visits he of course encountered another challenge: children calling him a hero.
"I think the kids are always fascinated by someone in uniform," he said. "If in that brief moment I make a child inspired or happy to go home and tell his parents about his day, then I have [helped create] communication between parent and child.
"People—men, women, children—will see me in my uniform and thank me for my service and call me a hero," he continued. "It always touches my heart, especially with the children, and I am grateful.
"But I always struggle with the word 'hero.' I don’t think of myself as a hero. I am just an ordinary person that did an extraordinary job during some difficult conditions."
Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Vigilante said he intends to serve for another 12 years if he can, and he would like to work for the Pentagon. In the meantime, he said he plans to launch an effort to find civilian work for returning veterans of the military.
And don't be surprised if he heads over there again.
"With the war still going on, I am sure my time will come again to serve overseas again," he said.
"I shall do it with honor."