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Fred Sganga

Members of the Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336 of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. in October 2017 presented the Long Island Veterans Home at Stony Brook University with a check for $5,000. Photo from Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336

Members of one veterans post are not letting diminishing membership stand in their way when it comes to helping former soldiers.

Marty Kupferberg and Stan Feltman outside the Middle Island Walmart selling poppies. Photo from the Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336

The Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America regularly collects donations to help veterans. In the last few months, the group raised money to sponsor three barbecues at the Long Island Veterans Home — one in August and two in September — along with a September golf outing for the home. Norman Weitz, post commander, said many of the members volunteer at the veterans home, and while the post has contributed funds in the past, including a $5,000 donation in 2017, this is the first time they are sponsoring events.

Fred Sganga, executive director of the Long Island Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, said the post’s contributions are valued.

“Their generosity has a direct impact on the quality of life of those veteran residents we are so honored to serve each and every day,” he said.

Since October 2017, the vets have contributed approximately $16,000 to causes dedicated to helping U.S. veterans, according to Weitz. In addition to the veterans home, the Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336, which meets in Centereach, has donated to various organizations including Paws of War, the Suffolk County United Veterans, and Operation Remember, a campaign spearheaded by county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) to update memorials in Setauket, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson to include those who served in the Gulf wars.

When it comes to donation dollars, Weitz and Barry Kopeloff, junior vice commander and chaplain, credit member Stan Feltman, 93, for enabling the group to donate as much as they do.

“He’s an amazing individual,” Weitz said.

Feltman can be seen every day outside the Middle Island Walmart selling poppies to raise money for his fellow veterans. Weitz said Feltman, at times, has collected up to $1,800 a month, and while many give a single dollar or two to the veteran, others sometimes give more.

“Their generosity has a direct impact on the quality of life of those veteran residents we are so honored to serve each and every day.”

— Fred Sganga

“One lady said here’s an extra $30 just for you, and Stan is independent, so he just throws that money back in the pot,” Weitz said.

Kopeloff said when it comes time to donate money, post members suggest organizations and then the group votes on whether or not to do so.

While many have heard of the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion, there are those who are unfamiliar with the Jewish War Veterans.

“We’d like people to understand what we do for the veterans, what we do for the community,” said Weitz.

Members of the post, which was originally called the Three Village Post 336, meet at the New Village Community Center in Centereach once a month. While there are more than 100 members who live in various areas in Brookhaven and even outside the town, Weitz said they may get around 20 members who can show up.

The post is always looking for new members, and like similar veterans groups, have no younger members who served after the Vietnam War.

“After Vietnam, it’s hard to get them because they’re young, and they’re working,” said Kopeloff, who is also on the Jewish Committee on Scouting.

Kopeloff said during Scout Sabbaths, when Eagle Scouts visit synagogues, he will ask if anyone in the congregation is interested in the post. Weitz and Kopeloff said members can be anyone from the Jewish faith that have served with any of the military branches of the United States or any allied nations. He said everyone has something important to contribute.

“The veterans that are coming home today from the Gulf War, from Afghanistan, are more attuned to helping veterans, and I think this would be a great plus,” Weitz said.

To help the Col. Mickey Marcus Post with its fundraising goals or for more information on the post contact: Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336, Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., P.O. Box 583, Centereach, NY 11720-2716.

Sheldon Polan, above center, with his son Andy Polan, left, and Fred Sganga, executive director of the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, during one of his weekly visits to the home. Photo from Andy Polan

One World War II veteran’s weekly visit to the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook is not about using its services — it’s about his passion for helping.

Sheldon Polan in uniform. Photo from Andy Polan

Sheldon Polan, who retired from his career as a full-time optician in 1987, visits veterans at the home every Thursday to measure and fit patients for glasses and adjust the spectacles when they come in.

The Selden resident, who turns 91 Nov. 10, said he’s been helping out at the home for seven years through his son Andy Polan’s business, Stony Brook Vision World, which is an affiliated practitioner of the veterans home.

“One day Andy says to me, ‘Dad, I can’t get over there — maybe you can help to bail me out,’” Sheldon Polan said.

The number of patients the optician sees varies from one or two to seven or eight depending on the day. When it comes to interacting with his fellow veterans, Polan, who served his time at West Point, said he enjoys talking to them about their military experiences.

“It gives you a common ground,” the optician said. “It kind of relaxes them too. It’s not ‘What are you going to do next.’”

Recently, the elder Polan took 20 examinations to renew his license, which is now valid for three more years. Through the decades, he’s seen a lot of advances in eyeglasses, including eyewear going from thick glass, where eyeglass wearers felt like they were wearing Coke bottles, to lighter plastics.

Polan said he occasionally helps his son out at Stony Brook Vision World, relieving some of the rigors of business ownership. Andy Polan is the president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce and a former president of his synagogue.

Being an optician wasn’t the veteran’s original career plan though. He said he was making a good living working for a large gas station in Brooklyn after the war, but freezing temperatures in the winter made it difficult to work sometimes. His brother, who was an optician, suggested he go to college to learn to become one.

“I went into the school, I liked what I saw, and I persevered,” he said.

“He is incredibly passionate about his work and is highly regarded by our residents.”

— Fred Sganga

Polan went on to work for 30 years with Dr. Norman Stahl in Garden City, who was the founder of Stahl Eyecare Experts, one of the first ophthalmologist offices in New York to use LASIK surgery when it became available in America in the ’90s.

Andy Polan said his father is a big help to him not only assisting at Stony Brook Vision World and at the veterans home but also making house calls when he can’t.

“I’m honored to have that,” the son said. “I’m luckier than a lot of people that my father at this age is able to still be very vital and helpful.”

Father and son both said they feel residents are fortunate to have the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook nearby.

“My dad is proud of what he sees over at the vets’ hospital,” Andy Polan said, adding that while many other veterans homes receive negative publicity, Long Island State Veterans Home executive director, Fred Sganga, goes above and beyond to make sure his patients are taken care of properly.

The respect is mutual. Sganga said it’s clear Polan loves to work with his fellow veterans.

“He is incredibly passionate about his work and is highly regarded by our residents,” Sganga said. “Sheldon’s optometry skills combined with his caring personality make him a welcome addition to our home. We salute him for his ageless abilities and his passion to serve his fellow veterans.”

Sheldon Polan said visiting veterans, where even a simple greeting means a lot to them, is important.

“Once I saw what I was giving to them and what I was getting back, I was hooked,” the optician said. “You got to feel for these people.”

Al Anderson, a Vietnam vet, tries out the new virtual reality device at the Long Island State Veterans Home. Photo by Kyle Barr

It was something straight out of science fiction.

On May 2, the residents and patients at Long Island State Veterans Home on the Stony Brook University campus put on stubby virtual reality goggles and headphones. After just a few seconds, they were transported to another place entirely.

A veteran experiences what it would be like to fly a fighter jet through a new virtual reality device being used at Long Island State Veterans Home. Photo by Kyle Barr

Vietnam veteran Al Anderson moved his head from side to side, up and down. He was no longer on Long Island but in Mozambique, Africa. To the left was a baby hippo and to the right grass plains of golden brown. One of the home’s recreational therapists spun Anderson around in his wheelchair, and then the VR changed, and he was suddenly in a suburban backyard where hummingbirds were feeding from a trough hanging above his head.

“It puts you right there, and if I had this available to me when I started to have some problems with [post-traumatic stress disorder], it would put me out of where I am to another place,” Anderson said. “If I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had this available to me, I could put it on and probably fall right back asleep without having a problem.”

Residents and patients of the veterans home were able to try one of the new 10 MyndVR devices now part of the home’s recreational therapy tools. MyndVR is a company based out of Dallas, Texas, that tries to provide VR technology to the elderly in retirement communities and home health care services. Directors at the home hope this will become a part of regular therapy.

“It’s not just a video game, it’s actually very therapeutic,” said Michelle Cheslak, the director of therapeutic recreation. “It stimulates their cognitive ability to recall a memory. Maybe it unlocks a memory of Paris, maybe a honeymoon that they’re now reliving. Think about it. They’re probably not going to be able to go to Paris ever again, now they can travel wherever they want, right from their seat.”

“It stimulates their cognitive ability to recall a memory. Maybe it unlocks a memory of Paris, maybe a honeymoon that they’re now reliving.”

— Michelle Cheslak

The VR headset allows those who wear it to experience full sensual awareness as the headset tracks head movement and changes audio direction based on where the person is facing.

Deputy Executive Director of the Long Island State Veterans Home Jonathan Spier said that the veterans home is the first in the country to use VR for therapy.

“My goal is to really try to use this with my veterans who suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD,” Spier said. “Some [residents] are just too physically disabled to go out into the community, so this is some technology to let that veteran go anywhere in the world.”

The money for the VR headsets was provided through a grant from the non-profit Bowlers to Veterans Link, an organization made up of bowlers and bowling alley owners who raise money for veteran causes.

“For the people who do the work, and try and heal the veterans, [local veteran centers] are the most appreciative of the value from that,” said John Laspina, the chair of the BVL board of directors and president of Maple Family Centers.

Some of the different VR experiences include NASCAR racing, a tour through Paris, taking off in a fighter jet and swimming with dolphins among several others. Though the devices are not physically intensive, Spier said people with epilepsy or other seizure disorders will not be able to use the devices.

“Some [residents] are just too physically disabled to go out into the community, so this is some technology to let that veteran go anywhere in the world.”

— Jonathan Spier

“It’s like I’m there, either taking off and landing,” said Vietnam veteran and adult day health care patient James Saladino about the fighter jet experience.

Veteran Ronald Kelson served in England from 1954 to 1956. He never got to visit Paris, but with virtual reality, he was able to get a small tour.

“I saw all of London, but I didn’t get to see all of Europe,” Kelson said. “You feel like you’re part of it.”

Executive Director Fred Sganga said he wants technology like this to help remove the stigma that nursing homes are depressing, monotonous places.

“We’re thrilled to be cutting edge,” Sganga said. “A nursing home should not be a boring place. I have an obligation to provide my residents with an outstanding quality of life. We like to say our residents have better social lives than we do.”

Cheslak said that as younger veterans arrive at the veterans home, there is a growing desire and need for more technologically-based therapy.

“We’re getting more younger veterans coming in who are computer savvy,” Cheslak said. “They have iPhones and iPads, and they’re looking for that new technology, for that action. People in their 60s and 70s want to go scuba diving again, they want a thrill.”