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22 veterans kayaked across Long Island Sound to help promote PTSD awareness. Photos by Kyle Barr

August 30 was a day about numbers.

Twenty-two kayakers in 11 boats. Twenty-two miles from Bridgeport to Port Jefferson. 

22 veterans kayaked across Long Island Sound to help promote PTSD awareness. Photos by Kyle Barr

On each of their minds, the estimated 22 veterans who commit suicide each day, and the many thousands more both veterans and others who suffer from PTSD.

In the final days of summer, the 22 veterans left Bridgeport at just after 10 a.m. and arrived in Port Jefferson at just before 5 p.m. As the fourth year of the event, called the 22-PTSD Awareness Challenge, those veterans have a long way to travel, having to turn their boats in a slight parabola to make it the full 22 miles. 

Frank Lombardi, one of the co-founders of the event and a veteran himself, said the event is extremely poignant just by the number. Veterans Affairs averages the number of soldiers and veterans who commit suicide at approximately 20 a day.

“Twenty-two veterans make the 22-mile trek, and that’s the magic number,” he said. 

22-PTSD Awareness Challenge was started in 2016 with Lombardi, fellow veteran Chris Levi and Alex Rohman, an executive of the Port Jefferson Station-based financial advisors Time Capital. That business, plus three others, helped get the first event up and running. At first, the three co-founders were the only ones to cross. Since then the number of veterans taking the challenge has only increased.

“I found that if I can get veterans to help other veterans, that’s the best way to help them,” said Rohman. “A lot of organizations compete for veterans, in a way, and we wanted to open this up to as many nonprofits as we can, so a veteran can walk in and see a multitude of services that can help.

On their arrival in Port Jefferson, the Port Jeff Village Center was crammed full of a number of veterans services initiatives for them to peruse. PSEG Long Island, while not sponsoring the event, aided the initiative through its community partnership program by providing volunteers. Eight of the kayakers were also employees of PSEG Long Island. 

22 veterans kayaked across Long Island Sound to help promote PTSD awareness. Photos by Kyle Barr

Two tables were for Independent Group Home Living Program, of which Lombardi is CEO. The money, Lombardi said, is going to Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk County, a subsidiary of IGHL that provides therapy services for veterans, among its other services for those experiencing family violence and rape. The first year of the event raised $60,000 to start a treatment program at VIBS, hiring a treatment specialist. While the amount they annually raise has gone down to around $15,000 per event, the IGHL CEO said the event now focuses more on outreach and getting veterans in touch with the services that can help them.

The veterans who kayaked said the Sound was relatively easy on the swell, though that didn’t stop the wind from picking up at the opposite direction once they neared Port Jefferson Harbor. The kayaks they rode in used pedals instead of oars, though the trek wasn’t any less tiring for it, with veterans of several different ages participating.

Friends and fellow veterans Martino Cascio, of Huntington, and Dennis Stringer, of New Hampshire, laughed as they described Cascio flipping their boat to dunk Stringer in the water.

Still, the two, who together completed several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, had a refrain running through their heads. Both have known fellow veterans who suffer from PTSD and others who took their own lives.

“I personally had a couple soldiers I was in a unit with take their own lives,” Stringer said. “It’s definitely affected me personally.”

Bayshore veteran Donna Zephrine has completed the kayak crossing several times. Having done two deployments in Iraq and having seen many of her compatriots from the army days suffer from PTSD, a few taking their own lives, she said the event truly helps gather veterans from all over into a single place where they might find life-saving services.

22 veterans kayaked across Long Island Sound to help promote PTSD awareness. Photos by Kyle Barr

“I try to do it in remembrance of them, and all the brothers and sisters who are still struggling, and all those suffering from PTSD,” she said. 

Mattituck veteran Tom Gross has done the event three years in a row. He served in the U.S. Army from 1984 through 1986 in the 82nd Airborne. 

“Twenty-two vets a day commit suicide, that’s over 8,000 a year, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “It’s a brotherhood, I didn’t understand how much of a brotherhood it was 30 years ago when I was in it, and when I raised my right hand how far that would carry for the rest of my life.”

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From left, veteran Frank Lombardi, Alex Rohman from Time Capital and veteran Chris Levi work to raise awareness for veterans’ mental health issues. Photo from Frank Lombardi

By Colm Ashe

There are more convenient ways to travel from Connecticut to Port Jefferson than across the Long Island Sound on a kayak, but taking the easy way is not an option for two Army veterans.

Chris Levi and Frank Lombardi kayaked from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson Aug. 27 in an effort to raise money and awareness for veterans suffering from mental health issues.

The 22-mile trip took more than six hours to complete. “It was a long day,” Lombardi said with a laugh.

The distance between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson is less than 22 miles, but the pair traveled the extra mileage because of the number’s significance. According to 22Kill, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about veteran suicide and post traumatic stress disorder, 22 veterans commit suicide every day on average. Many of these suicides are directly related to PTSD-induced stress and depression, according to the organization’s website.

Lombardi said he was horrified by the statistic and is motivated to change it. “If we can give hope to just one veteran and prevent them from taking their own lives, we will consider the trip a huge success,” he said.

22Kill, along with four other regional and national nonprofit organizations collaborated to make the event happen.

Among the team of organizations was the War Writers Campaign, a publishing company on a mission to get veteran stories published. Levi and Lombardi raised $5,000 for their campaign by enlisting the help of local businesses like Southampton-based pool and environmental company the Tortorella Group.

“We called John [Tortorella, owner of the Tortorella Group] asking for a $500 donation,” Lombardi said. “He heard what we were doing and gave us $1,000.”

“They are true American heroes whose strength and perseverance can provide hope for the many veterans who need support to pick themselves up and show the world that they can do amazing things.”

— Alex Rohman

Time Capital donated another $1,000 and sponsored a kayak for the event. Alex Rohman, a partner of Time Capital, is an active supporter of the War Writers Campaign. He also recruited Levi and Lombardi for the kayak trip.

“I called Chris and Frank to see if they would be interested in supporting the trip and they immediately agreed,” Rohman said. “Within one day, they wanted to do more to not only support the War Writers Campaign, but wanted to expand the level of awareness to other organizations as well.”

Levi and Lombardi then reached out to other local businesses and organizations to further the cause. Angela’s House, W.B. Mason, Terranova Landscaping, the IGHL Foundation and the Ann Liguori Foundation contributed the remaining donations to the War Writers Campaign.

“Both Chris and Frank represent unconditional support for all veterans and have dedicated their lives to help those who are less fortunate,” Rohman said. “They are true American heroes whose strength and perseverance can provide hope for the many veterans who need support to pick themselves up and show the world that they can do amazing things.”

Beyond the War Writers Campaign and the event, Levi and Lombardi are both deeply involved in their own philanthropic pursuits.

Lombardi is an executive for Independent Group Home Living Program, a group that provides alternatives for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. He also serves on the National Advisory Board of World T.E.A.M Sports, an organization striving to bring together disabled and able-bodied citizens to participate in sports like mountain climbing, white-water rafting, bicycling and kayaking.

Levi is a frequent participant in World T.E.A.M. events. As a disabled veteran himself, Levi has overcome adversity in a big way.

In 2008, he was leading a convoy in Iraq when his Humvee was hit with rockets and IEDs. Levi lost both legs and took significant damage to his right hand and arm. He spent many years in numerous hospitals, but after countless surgeries and a difficult rehabilitation process, his spirit prevailed.

Since then, Levi has strived to become an inspiration in the lives of those who are suffering as an activist and an example. Levi’s goal during the 22-mile paddle across the Long Island Sound, was clear. He said he wanted to “show our fellow veterans that there is hope out there and with the right support, they can truly ‘Climb to Glory.’” This is also the motto of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in which both Levi and Lombardi served.

Lombardi believes the 10th Mountain Division’s motto represents “hope for all veterans who are suffering that they can climb out of the darkness and rise to achieve great things.”