When a Navy recruiter showed up at her house to enlist her only son, Judi Tapper could have stopped him from joining.
But she gave her blessing. So shortly after graduating in 1989 from Edgewood High School in Winslow Township, where he was a standout wrestler, David, the youngest of six, embarked on a journey to pursue his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. Two years later, he joined the elite unit after completing SEAL training in San Diego.
He felt especially compelled to serve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, David was part of the team that made a daring raid behind enemy lines to rescue POW Jessica Lynch from her Iraqi captors and to help recover the bodies of nine American soldiers buried near where she had been held captive. During his third tour of duty, Tapper was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 2003, four days after his 32nd birthday.
His story, as told by his Gold Star mother, Judi Tapper, of Atco, has been memorialized in a video recording at the Library of Congress in Washington as part of its Veterans History Project. He is among 25 Camden County veterans whose stories were submitted for the project last week.
“They deserve to have their stories told,” said Tapper, 78, the former president of New Jersey Gold Star Mothers. “They volunteered to serve their country.”
Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect personal stories, photographs, and documents such as diaries, letters, and scrapbooks from veterans with service dating to World War I and preserve their accounts for future generations to better understand the realities of war. Hundreds of thousands of testimonies have been archived.
Initially, the project accepted only firsthand accounts from living veterans, excluding the stories of soldiers such as David Tapper, who died while serving. But his mother and others lobbied to change the law, and a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R., N.J.) was approved unanimously by the House in 2016 to allow immediate family members to share the stories of fallen loved ones.
“It’s not just the ones who served, but also the ones who didn’t come home,” said Judi Tapper, a retired real estate agent. “He really was so special. I think it was the greatest tragedy in life that I will ever have to deal with. It’s something I’ll never get over.”
The Camden County Freeholder Board began its Veterans History Project in 2013 to begin capturing the stories of the more than 26,000 veterans who live in the county. About 150 have been recorded, but many don’t meet the guidelines and requirements for submission to the Library of Congress, said Freeholder Bill Moen.
Moen, along with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.), delivered the videos to the Library of Congress last week. So far, Camden County and Sanilac County in Sandusky, Mich., are the only two counties in the country to participate in the national Veterans History Project. Oral historians, civic groups, and military buffs have also been collecting stories.
The county plans to review its recordings to identify future submissions, Moen said. The recordings will also be archived locally. The county eventually hopes to set up a place, possibly with kiosks where visitors can listen to narratives from those who served, he said.
The interviews are conducted by the Office of Veterans Affairs and recorded on DVDs, Moen said. Veterans are encouraged to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable disclosing, he said. A priority is given to older veterans to capture the recollections of a dying breed.
“These stories and the impact long term, in my mind, is priceless,” Moen said in an interview. “We’re losing so many of them. It’s dire, now more than ever, to try to preserve the stories that are left and able to be told.”
Tapper, the first interviewed, said she takes comfort in knowing that her son, who loved skydiving and the beach, fulfilled his dream to become a SEAL, a member of SEAL Team 6. She recalled that she jokingly told him when he decided to enlist: “You’re my only son. I can stop you.”
She said he replied, “No, Mom, this is what I want to do.”
His commendations included a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for valor. The 13-year veteran left behind his wife, Tracy, and four children, Raimen, Vanessa, Talia, and Jarred.
Korean War veteran Benjamin Robbs, 83, of Camden, wanted to share his experience for the history project as an African American who served in a segregated Army unit. Robbs, who grew up in Philadelphia, dropped out of high school when he was 15 to enlist in March 1951.
Robbs was sent to basic training at Fort Campbell in Hokinsville, Ky., where black recruits were barred from the commissary, service clubs, and certain neighborhoods because of their skin color, he said. There were more racial injustices when his segregated unit was shipped to Korea, where he fought for 10 months with ground troops, he said.
“People say so little about the black Army because they were segregated,” said Robbs, who achieved the rank of corporal and was awarded two Distinguished Service Cross Medals and a Bronze Star. “We were treated unfairly. They didn’t consider us human. It was bad.”
After Robbs was wounded by a mortar round, he was sent back to the United States. His injuries left him unable to stand for long periods, so the military sent him to school to study finance and gave him a new assignment indoors. He was discharged in 1954 — the same year that the last segregated unit in the armed forces was abolished.
Robbs later joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in Philadelphia as a business agent for 30 years. He also worked for the State of New Jersey in the unemployment office. He was twice married and had two sons, Brian and Adam.
A devout Muslim, Robbs enjoys a leisurely pace these days at the Victor Building in Camden, where he holds court daily in the lobby and everyone knows his name. He has come to terms with his Army experience. His only military memento is his DD 214 form, which lists the dates and locations of his service.
“These are memories I don’t want to remember,” Robbs said. “Some things you want to forget in life.”
Retired Army Command Sgt. Major Gordon Lampitt, 94, of Voorhees, enlisted in 1939 and served for 33 years, seeing duty in three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. A career officer, he became a civilian employee for 20 years at Fort Dix and retired in 1972, said his son, Charles.
When asked whether he was proud about his service during an interview for the history project, he responded: “Proud? I feel proud of the fact that I served my nation, yes. I served it to the best of my ability and I gave them the best I had.”
He is among a dwindling population of the country’s remaining World War II veterans, who are now in their 80s and 90s. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served were alive in 2017.
“We fought with him for years to get his story down before age set in,” said Charles, 60. “He is one proud, strong man. I can’t say enough about my dad.”
Lampitt, formerly of Browns Mills, remained very active for years until his health declined recently, said State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), his daughter-in-law. Married for more than 60 years and the father of five, he lives in an assisted-living facility with his wife, Rose, 87.
Recently, the family was able to obtain about 15 medals that Lampitt was due in recognition of his service, Pamela Lampitt said. Several years ago, he proudly donned his uniform and danced with his granddaughter, Ilene, at her wedding.
“He’s a remarkable man,” his daughter-in-law said.
For more information on the Veterans History Project, call the Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-464-VETS.