Several days before he was killed in Iraq in a roadside bombing, Army Spec. Anthony "Joe" Dixon sent his family a message: "If something should happen to me, celebrate."
Dixon, 20, of Lindenwold, died along with another soldier while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom in August 2004. His family honored his final request, all except his request not to shed any tears.
These days, his Gold Star mother, Jacquelyn Dixon, is honoring his life at a newly opened veterans center in South Jersey that bears his name and offers support for other veterans and their families. She wants to preserve his legacy.
"It never leaves your mind," said Jacquelyn Dixon, of Lindenwold. "His memory is very much alive through the center."
In a storefront in a small strip on a busy stretch of the White Horse Pike in Berlin, the center is a few doors from the Life Changing Christian Mission Church, where Dixon and her husband are ordained ministers of a small Pentecostal congregation.
The A.J. Dixon Vets and Friends Center opened Feb. 4 on a small scale, with an open house and ribbon-cutting. Dixon has bigger plans for the center, including Spanish classes, line dancing, a veterans choir, and storytelling night for veterans to share their experiences with each other and nearby students.
The center is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays. It is designed as a drop-in-site where veterans can come without an appointment to get services, a haircut, a light lunch, and to play games and find fellowship with other veterans.
"It's a great resource to let veterans talk," said Tom Collier, of the Camden County Veterans Office. "Veterans can come in and find a place where they can feel comfortable."
Vietnam veteran Nick Beck, 72, of Berlin Borough, spent several hours last week at the center. After munching on a homemade meatball sandwich prepared by Jacquelyn Dixon, he joked and played checkers and poker with Dixon and other volunteers.
"We're not playing for money," Beck said with a laugh, sitting with a group at a small card table near the window catching the afternoon sun.
"Absolutely not," Dixon said.
Beck, who completed two tours in Vietnam and sustained gunshot wounds in both legs during his 11 years in the military, was greeted warmly by fellow Army veteran Daniel Ortiz, 55, of Sicklerville. Ortiz thanked Beck for his service.
"We paid a hell of a price for it," Beck said, referring to the less-than-honorable treatment some Vietnam veterans received when they returned home. "They treated us terrible."
The two men shared stories and medical histories. Beck said he suffered from exposure to Agent Orange. Ortiz spent months in the now-closed Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington several years ago and is permanently disabled.
"It's amazing how veterans are treated," Ortiz said. "You would think they would support you more."
Volunteer Pat Milton, 69, of Lindenwold, said her husband, Larry, 70, rarely spoke about his deployment to Vietnam shortly after they were married in 1966. He opens up at the center with other veterans.
"We want them to be able to talk about their experiences," Dixon said. "It's a good release."
Dixon operated the place for about eight years as a community resource center. It reopened last fall as a veterans center. She receives in-kind services from the county and relies mostly on donations from family and friends.
At the center, there are tributes to Joe Dixon scattered around the room and plenty of photographs, including an album filled with family photographs chronicling his life from birth to death. Visitors can write messages with colored markers on a memorial wall. One read: "May God's wisdom and mercy dwell in this place and every heart that enters within."
After graduating from Overbrook High School in 2002, Joe Dixon had no real plans and spent two summers enjoying life and working odd jobs, his family said. He had an adventurous spirit and was always up for a dare, including climbing a cellphone tower. He also enjoyed racing around town in his silver hot-rod Civic, his mother said.
His family thought he would possibly join the Reserve. Much to their surprise, he enlisted in the Army in 2003 along with his high school buddy Adam Froelich. Froelich was also killed in Iraq, a few months before Dixon.
"He wanted to make a difference," Jacquelyn Dixon said about her son in an interview.
After basic training, Joe was sent to Germany, where he enjoyed zipping around the Autobahn in a rented BMW, his mother said. There, he also met his future fiancee, a Turkish woman he planned to marry when he came home. After the Army, Dixon planned to join law enforcement, following in the footsteps of an older brother.
"He loved the excitement. He was always doing something," his mother recalled with a smile.
He was sent to Iraq in the spring of 2004. He shared his experiences in Iraq with his family in photographs, messages, and phone calls home. He told them about the sobering realities of war: deaths nearby and his own narrow escapes.
"He was just a happy going kind of guy, living one day at a time," his mother said. "He would say, 'When the good Lord comes to get you. it's your time.' "
A retired special education teacher, Dixon was devastated by the death of the youngest of her five children. Her grief-stricken husband, Alexander, was unable to attend the funeral. Their son was buried with full military honors.
Her surviving children -- three sons and a daughter -- urged her to emerge from her cocoon for their sake. Eventually she did, serving as the chaplain for the state chapter of Gold Star Mothers and starting the center to remember Joe.
"This makes me feel good. It's all worth it," Dixon said, gesturing to the center. "He loved life and he loved his family."
The A.J. Dixon Vets and Friends Center is at 130 W. White Horse Pike, Suite 3, Berlin, N.J. 08009