Michele and Bill McNaughton lost their son James in 2005. He was killed in Iraq by sniper fire. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Bill McNaughton, a retired NYPD officer, army veteran and Centereach resident could hear the party outside the small back room. The music was loud and upbeat, the crowd was hundreds strong and their bodies nearly filled every inch inside Mulcahy’s Concert Hall in Wantagh. The event attendees were all out there celebrating the life of McNaughton’s son James, an NYPD officer and army reservist who while stationed in Iraq was killed by sniper fire in 2005. He was 27.

“You know what it is, even though we’ve been doing this for years, this is like the first every time,” Bill McNaughton said. “It’s nice, but it brings back everything. And you know everybody else goes home tonight, but it stays with us.”

Pictures of his son, known to most as Jimmy, were hung out on the dance floor and on televisions around the room. Every year since January 2006, half a year from when he was killed, family and friends have come together to celebrate his life and raise money for veteran aid groups.

Friends Eric Wiggins, Anthony Palumbo, Vinny Zecca and Danny Leavy​ celebrate the life of their childhood friend. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Jimmy, he’s still helping guys today,” McNaughton said. “That’s what this is about, he’s still helping his men. All those people out there shows how he touched so many lives, and as a father you can’t ask more than that. It is an honor to see it.”

The annual event honoring James McNaughton hosted its 13th anniversary Jan. 27. The donations from sponsors helped raise money for nonprofit Wounded Warriors Project and PTSD Veterans Association of Northport.

Jimmy McNaughton graduated high school in 1996, and having early enlisted, immediately joined the army. When he returned home after being honorably discharged, he joined the reserves and the NYPD, where both his dad and stepmother worked as officers. He helped in aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was sent oversees with the reserves in 2004 and 2005. He was killed in August of that year.

The event was created by the veteran’s childhood friends, including Vincent Zecca, who worked to ensure the memory of his friend was never lost.

“We tried to think of something that he would want,” Zecca said. “He wouldn’t want us to be somber and hold a traditional benefit, he would want something that everyone could enjoy.”

“Jimmy wouldn’t want people to cry in the corner, that’s just not how Jimmy was.”

— Michele McNaughton

McNaughton’s stepmother Michele agreed it’s a celebration that further strengthens her son’s memory and memorializes his story.

“Jimmy wouldn’t want people to cry in the corner, that’s just not how Jimmy was,” she said. “He always had a goofy smile on his face. I’m not going to say it’s easy for Bill or myself or even his friends — it’s hard to keep yourself together, and it doesn’t get any easier with time — but Jimmy was a really fine and funny kid, always laughing, he was never down in the dumps. This is how we remember that.”

The deejay, Michael Paccione, was a childhood friend of McNaughton’s. One of the bands who played two sets, Plunge, has donated its time for several years. The band was joined by New York Shields Pipes & Drums, which played Taps on ceremonial bagpipes.

Attendance at the event has remained consistent at the 1,000-person mark over the last few years.

Eric Wiggins, another longtime childhood friend, saw McNaughton as one of the most loyal people he ever knew.

“He would do anything for you,” he said. “We’re all one big group of friends, and doing this like this, with this party, and how many people come, just shows us returning that loyalty.”

The band Plunge has donated time to perform at the James McNaughton Foundation fundraiser for the last few years. Photo by Kyle Barr

Lou Puleo makes the photo slideshow, and mixes them up every year.

“He was the selfless type,” Puleo said of his old friend. “He was the type of guy that when he was overseas, he would get care packages, but if there was something good, he would give it out to everybody.”

Brothers Mike and Ross Burello grew up across the street from the McNaughton’s. They remember their neighbor as the youngest kid of the group, always up for playing outside.

“I don’t get to see these guys too often,” Ross Burello said. “So I love coming here every year. The montage and slideshow at the end brings it all back. It shows just how much he did for our country.”

Bill McNaughton said not a day goes by he doesn’t think about his son. He has Jimmy’s face tattooed on his arm so when he shakes a person’s hand, they just might ask who he is. His name and likeness are also stenciled in both his large army Humvee and his ‘69 Chevelle.

“I remember that Colonel walking on my lawn,” he said. “That’s my way of dealing with it. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do any of that stuff. You know how I deal with it? I take that Humvee and I drive.”

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