Instead of pageant practice, a surprise thanks

Chessie Vollaro is overcome by emotion at the gathering on Covered Bridge Road in Cherry Hill, which included police and firefighters. She lives in Passaic County and was visiting a friend.
Chessie Vollaro is overcome by emotion at the gathering on Covered Bridge Road in Cherry Hill, which included police and firefighters. She lives in Passaic County and was visiting a friend. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 09, 2013

When Chessie Vollaro arrived in Cherry Hill on Sunday, she thought she and a friend would be preparing for a beauty pageant.

Instead, the 21-year-old - who returned last month from a tour in Afghanistan - was surprised by a swarm of 60 motorcyclists and Cherry Hill police and firefighters, welcoming her back to New Jersey.

Standing in a driveway on Covered Bridge Road with her friend, Brittany Vaughn, who was wearing a tiara and sash, Vollaro put her hands to her mouth as motorcycles roared up the street, then began to cry.

"Well, I didn't expect this at all," she told the group outside the home of Vaughn's mother, Catherine Shukdinas.

Vollaro, who is from Bloomingdale, a borough in Passaic County, came home from Afghanistan on June 8. She spent nine months in Kabul, a specialist who drove armored vehicles with the New Jersey Army National Guard 508th Military Police Company.

Since her return, "I haven't got the appreciation like this at all," Vollaro said, after receiving thank-yous and hugs from leather-vested Warrior Watch Riders, who along with Operation Yellow Ribbon of South Jersey organized the event.

"So that's why I keep crying," she said.

Vollaro joined the National Guard after graduating from Butler High School in 2010. While in school, she competed in pageants - and will compete this month in a Miss New Jersey American Coed contest - and was president of the drama club.

When she joined the military, "nobody understood it, because she's a pageant girl," said Vollaro's mother, Andrea. But "it's just something she was destined to do."

Chessie Vollaro said she "wanted to follow in the footsteps" of her great-grandfather and grandfather, who served in the military.

She also wants to do police work - and Afghanistan was good training, she said. She described the job of military police in Kabul as "basically a police officer in New York City, on steroids."

"I loved everything about it," Vollaro said. "You build relationships with a lot of people."

Her return had been relatively quiet - until Sunday.

With Andrea, father Jim, and brother Jimmy, 13, watching and friends snapping pictures, Vollaro found herself at the center of a crowd of motorcyclists - including members of the Warrior Watch Riders, the American Legion, and other groups - first responders, and Cherry Hill and Camden County officials.

"Come on in, everybody. We got a hero to welcome home," announced David Silver, president of Operation Yellow Ribbon, a volunteer group that coordinates military homecoming events.

It was no matter that Vollaro lives at the other end of the state.

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. gave her a framed proclamation declaring July 7 "Francesca Vollaro Day."

"Hopefully more and more young people will follow your lead," Cappelli told her.

County officials were invited to the event by Operation Yellow Ribbon, spokesman Dan Keashen said.

"If the county is being used as a base for a welcome home, we'll take part in a ceremony, and we'll honor that person," Keashen said.

Vollaro will start college in the fall at Montclair State University, studying criminal justice and hoping to become a police officer. She's still in the Reserve.

Being home "is weird. That's really the only way to explain it," Vollaro said. Talking to others in the military has helped, she said.

While the adjustment has been difficult, "it gets better and better," she said. "Especially today."


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

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