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Joe Cognitore

In honor of Memorial Day, Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park hosted its annual Parade of Flags, while VFW’s in Rocky Point and Sound Beach took the time May 27 to memorialize those servicemen and servicewomen lost throughout the years.

Joe Cognitore, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point, read the names of 204 people who have died in the service of the U.S., with each set of names said to the sound of a bell. He said the number of names he reads every Memorial Day grows every year.

Over in Sound Beach, the Sound Beach Civic, along with members of the Sound Beach Fire Department, hosted their own ceremony at the Sound Beach Veterans Memorial. Flags flew at half mast, but veterans of each branch of service, from the U.S. Military, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, helped raise each of the flags high to the bright, sunny sky. Members of the Miller Place Boy Scouts of America Troop 204 played an echo version of taps.

“Flowers, memorials and flags at half staff, and the sad notes of taps, as meaningful as they are, they are not enough,” Cognitore said. What we really must do to honor their sacrifice is to live what they died for.”

 

Town of Smithtown officials and St. James veterans give their respects at the rededication of the Vietnam War memorial Nov. 21, 2018. File Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

After a successful statewide lobbying campaign resulting in the restoration of nearly $4 million in funding for a veterans peer support program some have called vital, and given an additional $300,000 for expansion, New York State officials introduced bipartisan legislation April 22 to expand the program nationally. 

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act (H.R.1749), which would expand the peer-to-peer support program nationally for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological and physical traumas. The Dwyer bill was co-sponsored by NYS Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Peter King (R-Seaford) and others. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well.”

— Joe Cognitore

“Expanding nationally the Dwyer program, which is currently operating in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, eventually to all states in the U.S., will ensure that every veteran can have access to a peer-to-peer support group,” Zeldin said in a statement. “With the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] reporting that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide, this national expansion is long overdue.”

This is the second time Zeldin has introduced legislation to expand the program nationally. Two years ago, the congressman proposed a bill that would authorize the VA to support veteran support programs modeled after the Dwyer project with federal grants. 

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, was in Albany with other veterans groups in March urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the Dwyer program, and he said the new bill is a great opportunity to expand these resources to other veterans throughout
the country. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well,” he said.

The main goal of the Dwyer project, which is currently overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

The commander of the VFW Post is glad the funds were restored as part of the executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and in April stopped by the office of state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) to thank him for his support for the Dwyer program. The veteran group presented the senator with a framed picture of the famous photograph of Dwyer helping an ailing Iraqi child. 

“I support anyone who supports veterans, it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat,” Cognitore said. “It is gratifying that we were able to do that, and we have officials that are doing the right thing.”

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008.

Veterans Dan Guida, Gary Suzik and Joseph Cognitore during a visit to Rocky Point High School to commemorate Veterans Day. Photo by Rich Acritelli

By Rich Acritelli

This week marks the 63rd anniversary of the first Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1954, as declared by President Eisenhower, an annual remembrance of national service.

“On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom,” Eisenhower said.

Many North Shore residents have served at home and abroad to protect the freedom of the United States. Just recently, proud veterans from VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point were interviewed by members of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society about their years in uniform.

The first veteran to be interviewed was Gary Suzik, who is a resident of Rocky Point. The native of Michigan’s upper peninsula grew up playing football, hockey and downhill skiing and still has a touch of his Mid-western accent. He served in the U.S. Navy for four years and was stationed on the USS LaSalle, where he helped guide the landing craft. As it turned out, this was one of the last ships to be built locally at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. Suzik said he is immensely proud of his duty on a vessel that saw naval missions for more than 40 years in every corner of the world. The ship and crew even helped retrieve the Gemini capsule, a spacecraft carrying two astronauts, after it landed from an early space mission.

Suzik participated in operations in the Mediterranean Sea, where he visited ports in Italy and France. He was also deployed to Cuba and the Caribbean during the Dominican Civil War in 1965. It was common for this ship to carry about 400 sailors and 500 to 600 Marines who  utilized landing crafts to assault enemy forces in hot spots around the globe. Suzik mentioned how the ship had the honor of carrying Admiral John McCain Jr., who is the father of senator, noted Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war John McCain (R-Arizona). Veterans Day is a special moment for Suzik as he recalls not only his memories, but that of his father who fought during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and other family members who were also in the military.

Dan Guida grew up in Nassau County and currently lives in Wading River. His mother had nine brothers, of which seven served in the military during World War II. Since his youth, Guida said he learned the importance of national service from stories that were presented to him by his uncle. After high school, Guida was granted a temporary military deferment in order to attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, but a short time later, he decided to leave school and was drafted into the Army. With some college behind him, Guida was accepted into the Army Officer Candidate School and became a second lieutenant. Today around the post, many of the VFW members cheerfully refer to him as “Lieutenant Dan,” a reference to the film “Forrest Gump.”

From 1967 to 1968, Guida served in Vietnam with the I Corps. As an officer, he was responsible to direct tanks, armored personnel carriers and the trucks that operated within the northern areas of South Vietnam, not too far from Da Nang and the demilitarized zone. Guida recalled the tanks didn’t function well within the terrain of Vietnam through the heavy rains that saturated the grounds and made it difficult for American armor to gain enough traction in the mud. He shared interesting insights into the buildup to the war with the students.

Later, Guida utilized the GI Bill to attend Nassau Community College and Hofstra University, where he majored in accounting. He held a job as an accountant for a good part of his life and he still happily holds financial responsibilities today for Post 6249. The Wading River resident said Veterans Day is a moment that our citizens should be thankful for the sacrifices that past, present and future veterans have made toward the security of this nation. Guida said he saw that gratitude as he entered the high school before the interview. He had a big smile on his face when a younger Rocky Point student personally thanked him for his service.

Rocky Point resident and local commander of VFW Post 6249, Joseph Cognitore was also asked about his time in the service by the students. While Guida saw the earlier part of the war, Cognitore, who was drafted into the Army, endured the latter phase of fighting in Vietnam. From 1969 to 1970, he was a platoon sergeant that served in the air cavalry that transported soldiers by helicopters into various areas of the country. 

Cognitore was tasked to conduct “search and destroy” missions against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army who were situated in caves, tunnels, jungles and mountains. He also fought in Cambodia against an enemy that utilized the strength of the Ho Chi Minh trail to move troops and materials through the country to attack American and South Vietnamese forces.

Cognitore said it took a long time to put the war behind him. During the Gulf War in the early ’90s, he joined the VFW and rose to be its commander and to hold prominent leadership positions within the local, state and national levels of the organization. He said he is constantly reminded of his combat tours through injuries to his legs that have left him hobbling for years.

Cognitore views every day as Veterans Day. Each day he answers countless emails and telephone calls to help men and women that have served at home and abroad. Recently, Cognitore helped spearhead a golf outing that has raised over $200,000 to help the Wounded Warriors. One of the most important qualities the students were treated to during the interview was the camaraderie the veterans have toward each other, a dynamic likely strengthened by Post 6249’s daily mission of helping every veteran.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

When Charles Murphy returned home to Northport in 1971 after serving 14 months in the Vietnam War, he wasn’t greeted with open arms or hand shakes. In fact, it was just the opposite.

“There was no band, no rallies, no thank you’s,” said Murphy, 68, an Army veteran. “You went back into the population and tried to cope with who you were. And you were a different person then. As a group, we Vietnam vets got the short end of the stick.”

Thomas Semkow, 71, who was in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969, said he remembers being looked down on when he came home.

“People weren’t very nice to us,” the Wading River resident said. “We were the outcasts of society.”

But Aug. 1 — more than 50 years since members of the U.S. Armed Forces first set foot on the battlegrounds in Vietnam — Murphy, Semkow and dozens of other Vietnam veterans within Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and beyond finally got the recognition they’ve always deserved.

“People weren’t very nice to us. We were the outcasts of society.”

—Thomas Semkow

It happened during the intermission of  Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and the VFW’s annual Rocky Point free concert series.

Each of them stood together in front of a grand stage outside St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church as Anker and Military Liaison Steven Castleton presented Vietnam veteran lapel pins on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense and a special proclamation signed by President Barack Obama in 2012. Family members of veterans were also honored.

The veterans smiled with gratitude and hundreds of residents applauded as they received the accolades. Part of the proclamation read, “Let us strive to live up to their example by showing our Vietnam veterans, their families, and all who have served the fullest respect and support of a grateful nation.”

“I salute you all, thank you for your service … and welcome home,” said Joe Cognitore, the VFW post commander.

Cognitore, who served in an Army reconnaissance unit in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971, said the VFW has been putting on summer concerts for the community for more than 10 years and was excited at the prospect of giving back to those who warrant the attention.

“They were never welcomed home, and so I’m anxious to see them all come up tonight,” Cognitore said earlier in the evening. “Us Vietnam veterans look out for the guys and girls that are out serving now — we’re dedicating our lives to help them. Men and women who serve today are just unbelievable and we don’t want anything to happen to them like it happened to us.”

“Us Vietnam veterans look out for the guys and girls that are out serving now — we’re dedicating our lives to help them.”

—Joe Cognitore

Daniel Guida, of Shoreham, was an Army lieutenant in 1967 and 1968. He said it felt really good to be recognized not just with medals, but love and support from the community.

“Recently, when I had my Vietnam veteran hat on walking into K-Mart, six or seven people thanked me and wanted to shake my hand before I even got in the store,” Guida said. “That’s a foreign concept to me and it really brings a certain reality to what you did and shows that people do appreciate it.”

Members from the Long Island Young Marines stood holding flags during the concert’s opening pledge of allegiance and “God Bless America” performance before Cognitore addressed all the veterans in the crowd, from those who served in World War II to those currently enlisted.

The pin and proclamation ceremony ended with residents and veterans holding hands in a large group circle, swaying and raising them in the air to the chorus of the Southbound band’s cover of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

“We’re all forever brothers,” Murphy said of his fellow Vietnam veterans. “No matter where we go. Forever brothers. We’re the only ones who know what we dealt with.”

Blueprints would mirror design for similar housing in Rocky Point

Mark Baisch discusses his proposal for senior homes in Miller Place at the July 10 Sound Beach Civic Association meeting. Photo by Ginny Drews

Low-cost, community-based apartments for seniors may be heading to Miller Place.

During a July 10 Sound Beach Civic Association meeting, Mark Baisch, owner of the Rocky Point-based development company Landmark Properties Ltd., proposed 44 600-square-feet, one bedroom apartment units be built as a cul-de-sac on the northwest corner of Sylvan Avenue and Echo Avenue.

The plan is for the senior-exclusive apartment complex, temporarily named Echo Run, to be developed on half of the heavily wooded 3.7-acre site, while the other half would remain in its natural state.

According to Baisch’s proposal, all four units in each of the 11 buildings would have a high Energy Star rating with geothermal heating and cooling systems. Rent is expected to be between $1,000 and $1,400 per month.

It’s kind of lifting a weight off their shoulders because now, this whole homeownership responsibility at 75 years old goes away.”

— Mark Baisch

He said the project aims to provide older residents a new, much-needed living option.

“There’s a huge demand for reasonably priced apartments for seniors who have lived here for a significant portion of their life because for them, there is no place to go,” Baisch said of his plan, which targets senior citizens burdened with paying high taxes to live in homes or basement apartments they might not need anymore. “It’s kind of lifting a weight off their shoulders because now, this whole homeownership responsibility at 75 years old goes away and you end up living the rest of your life without that worry.”

He said senior citizens would not have to worry about upkeep and maintenance around their yard and home while in the complex.

“Here’s what would be a bunch of accessory apartments all in an area where everybody’s in the same boat — they can all support one another and that’s the way it really should be,” Baisch said. “The psychological benefit alone probably exceeds the housing benefit.”

Sound Beach Civic Association President Bea Ruberto, 70, said she’s ready to sign up.

“I can envision myself living there,” Ruberto said. “As baby boomers, we’re getting to the age where we want to live somewhere like that and we have very few rental apartments in the area. More senior rental is definitely needed.”

Ruberto said the proposal was well-received by other civic board members, especially Baisch’s idea to give each building in the complex a different color and design so it better fits the look of the community.

“I can envision myself living there. … More senior rental is definitely needed.”

— Bea Ruberto

The Miller Place proposal mirrors Baisch’s On the Commons apartment complex in development in Rocky Point on the site of the old Thurber Lumber Co. Inc. He said Miller Place and Sound Beach residents requested to be placed on the Rocky Point housing list, prompting him to add a second location.

Like On the Commons, Echo Run plans to reserve a significant percentage of its homes for United States military veterans. The minimum percentage for veterans in Miller Place would be 10 percent, Baisch said, but that number may be adjusted pending an upcoming meeting with Joe Cognitore, commander of Rocky Point Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 6249.

Mary McDonald, 66, who has lived in Miller Place for 32 years, is pleased the proposal is pushing for residential development as opposed to commercial.

“Affordable housing for seniors is something that’s going to be needed all through Suffolk County, because taxes are so high seniors have to leave,” she said. “I’m getting to that point myself.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she has already received positive feedback from seniors.

“Several residents have reached out to me and are very excited for it,” Bonner said.

Baisch has discussed the estimated two-year plan with the president of the Miller Place Civic Association and members of Brookhaven Town, and will be meeting with the Mount Sinai Civic Association in the near future.

“I know this will be a homerun in Miller Place,” he said, “just like it’s a homerun in Rocky Point.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”

Renée, Zachary and Glen Cote are the 11th family to receive a home from Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch through their veteran program. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Cotes are home for the holidays.

On Dec. 14, the owners of the 11th home for returning veterans, Glen and Renée Cote, received the keys to their new home, just in time for 7-year-old Zachary Cote to enjoy his first Christmas in Miller Place.

The house would not have been made possible if it wasn’t for Rocky Point VFW Post 6429 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties Mark Baisch.

The Cote family moved into their new home in Miller Place last week. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Cote family was chosen after Baisch heard Zachary was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria. His mother suffers from the same rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital.

If that wasn’t enough, Zachary’s father, who was a U.S. Army combat medic from 1988 to 1992 and specialized in deployment training and immunization for a bulk of army medics in the Gulf War, suffered an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

The family had lived in a home in Sound Beach, until March, when the Cotes were told they were being evicted because the landlord had let the home fall into foreclosure.

The goal was to get the Cotes into the home on Helme Avenue before Christmas.

“To make this happen in the four months that we had is pretty monumental,” Baisch said before handing over the keys. “This house is complete. It isn’t like we have to come back and still do some stuff. The flooring is finished, everything’s done, it’s painted. This house is ready for them to move in. In fact, I intend for the Cotes to sleep here tonight.”

The family did sleep there that night and have been enjoying their new home. Especially Zachary, who was already making use of the small crawl space under the stairway in the basement. He said he’ll turn it into a play room for his new friends.

“It seems so surreal. Until the movers got there this morning, it was just like ‘they’re actually here and they’re putting our stuff in the truck.’ It’s such a blessing [and] I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
—Glen Cote

“It’s an incredible feeling; it’s overwhelming to know that this day is here upon us,” Glen Cote said during move-in day. “It seems so surreal. Until the movers got there this morning, it was just like ‘they’re actually here and they’re putting our stuff in the truck.’ It’s such a blessing [and] I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The family is excited to celebrate its first holidays in the new home, but Zachary’s parents are even more thankful for the fact that their son will be able to remain in the school district that they said has taken such great care of him.

To be able to do that for the Cotes warms Baisch’s heart.

“What we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this,” he said. “Nobody feels happier than me right now. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

At the end of the celebration, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) just had one final thing to tell the family as it walked through its new front door: Welcome home.

Kevin Redding contributed reporting

Rocky Point dedicated the square at the corner of Broadway and Route 25A, formerly the blighted Oxygen Bar property, to a Veterans Memorial Square. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Once an eyesore to the community, Rocky Point’s corner of Broadway and Route 25A is now a place that honors those who fight for our freedom.

On Oct. 17, Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) along with other members of local government, dedicated the former Oxygen Bar property as a new veterans memorial square, with a flag-raising ceremony.

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner helps members of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 in the flag raising ceremony Oct. 17. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner helps members of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 in the flag raising ceremony Oct. 17. Photo by Desirée Keegan

“The members of the community have been so supportive of this project and have a vision for a greater, better downtown,” Bonner said at the event. “We all appreciate the sacrifices every veteran has made and honor them today as we dedicate this veterans memorial square by raising the flags of our armed forces. This beautiful green space will also serve as the gateway to a revitalized downtown Rocky Point for years to come.”

Bonner visited the formerly blighted property back in March, and said it excites her now to see how it’s transformed in seven short months.

“A source of problems is gone, and a source of pride has taken its place,” she said.

The square wouldn’t have been made possible if it wasn’t for the help of VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore.

“This piece of property will be here much, much longer than I will, and that’s where the return on this investment is going to come,” Cognitore said of the square. “We should do this to all counties and municipalities throughout our area. We must make sure that our younger generations know about our military, what they go through and what they do for our country.”

Bonner helped to formally present the colors to the playing of the National Anthem. All of the flags raised were donated by Rocky Point resident Roland Jackson.

“Roland Jackson is one of those people who never says ‘if you need anything, let me know,’” Bonner said. “He just does it. He called me up and said he was getting the flags and he’d like to donate them.”

Joe Cognitore, commander of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, speaks during the dedication ceremony Oct. 17. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Joe Cognitore, commander of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, speaks during the dedication ceremony Oct. 17. Photo by Desirée Keegan

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) was also at the ceremony, and told a story of how he visited troops in Iraq last Christmas, meeting a Command Sgt. Major on his 11th deployment, and a young teenager on his first.

“Eleven deployments later he was still serving and loving ever minute of it,” Zeldin said of the Major. “When that Command Sgt. Major signed up for the military there was no Sept. 11 on his radar. But when that teenager signed up, that’s all that he had ever known. He knew exactly what he was signing up for. But he loved the flag, he loved our country and he cherished our freedoms and liberties, and he’s willing to lay down his life in defense of it.”

Zeldin said the new parcel in Rocky Point proudly displays its support for its veterans like the ones he’s met.

“For that teenager who signs up, it’s not just about the flag, it’s not just about his freedoms and liberties, but it’s out of deep admiration and respect for those who have come before him or her,” he said. “We get to live in the greatest nation of the world, and for those veterans, we salute you and we thank you for your service.”

State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said the memorial square is not just a wonderful thing for the Rocky Point community, but for all members of the nation.

“Our freedoms that this nation was based on are always under assault, and always will be, and that’s why we’re the greatest nation in the world,” he said. “Today, we are saying to the world we are alive, we are America and we are proud to be Americans.”

Renée, Glen and Zachary Cote at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Rockt Point Post 6249 ninth annual gold outing on Sept. 26. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

The Cote family is overwhelmed.

After Glen, a Gulf War veteran, and Renée found out that they would be receiving a new home for veterans in Miller Place, they got a phone call that some of the proceeds from Joe Cognitore’s VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 ninth annual Veterans of Foreign Wars Rocky Point Post 6249 annual golf outing at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai, on Sept. 26, will go toward their new home.

“People keep asking us about the process with the house,” Renée Cote said. “I’m still trying to absorb everything — and then we get a call about this — there’s so much love here and to be on the receiving end of that, it’s a blessing.”

The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote
The Cote family will be receiving a home built for returning veterans and their families, on Helme Avenue in Miller Place. Photo by Glen Cote

The Cotes have been through several hardships, from Renée Cote being diagnosed with a rare and painful metabolic disorder called acute intermittent porphyria, which requires expensive biweekly treatments that she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, to her 7-year-old son Zachary being diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in 2014.

Most recently, the family was told they were being kicked out of their home because the landlord had let the rental fall into foreclosure.

“It’s awesome to see this much love for somebody from out of town like myself, that they don’t know, it’s incredible,” Glen Cote, who’s from Texas, said. “Everyone is so supportive and friendly.”

The family recently met with Cognitore, Rocky Point’s post commander, for the first time when Landmark Property owner and developer Mark Baisch chose the family to receive the 11th home for returning veterans. The two are still looking for a family for the 12th home.

“It’s a good feeling, especially given their circumstances,” Cognitore said of helping the family. “We’ve been doing things over the phone, and it helped me in the hospital. I felt very good. It was a big relief to know that we’re helping this family out.”

The Cotes said they’ve begun meeting their new neighbors and community members and they’re excited to make the move. Their previous rental home was in Sound Beach,

“They are the nicest people,” Renée Cote said. “I like the fact that — because, we kind of stalked the house — they came out and they were saying hello to us, they’ve been in the community for 30 to 40 years, they were very welcoming and we’re excited. I’m excited to have little BBQs with them and stuff like that.”

“When Mark [Baisch] heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue, and talk about superheroes, [Mark Baisch and Joe Cognitore] are our local superheroes.”

— Sarah Anker

At the golf outing, where more than 160 golfers hit the course to help support veterans, Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) came out to meet the family and commend Cognitore and Baisch for all of their work helping local veterans.

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue, and talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

LaValle was glad to seewho have helped him remain in the Miller Place school district, which was most important to his family.

“It all comes together very, very nicely,” he said. “We can’t do enough for our veterans to say thank you, and this is one of many ways that we can appreciate their service that they have made to our country.”

Renée Cote said she is also teaching her son to give back, and said she feels thank you will never be enough.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

The Bonacasa family and members of the North Shore Jewish Center get together after the ceremony. Photo by Donna Newman

When Rabbi Aaron Benson of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station learned of the passing of a North Shore resident in Afghanistan, he knew he wanted to help, he just wasn’t sure how at the time.

“Some events bring the news home to you in a personal and direct way,” Benson said. “This one struck me personally.”

Benson recalled learning of the death of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa while attending Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) inauguration Dec. 30. Bonacasa was a local hero from Coram who left behind a widow and 5-year-old daughter when he was killed by a suicide bomber four days before Christmas last year. Benson wanted to do something to help the family.

He called upon congregant Doris Weisman, chairperson of military support services at the synagogue, to form a plan of action. Weisman, is a member of a military family and became widowed young.

“Having had so much military around me all my life, it was natural for me to reach out to Deb,” she said of contacting Bonacasa’s wife Deborah. “I will do everything I can to help her and [their daughter] Lilianna find their way, which they are doing. They have a lot of good support.”

A fundraising effort began thanks to the efforts of Benson and Weisman.

At a ceremony held Aug. 19 at the Jewish Center, Benson welcomed Bonacasa family members, and led a prayer for Louis Bonacasa, lit a memorial candle for him and presented a check to his widow.

Benson gave Lilianna a hamsa, which is a palm-shaped amulet popular in the Middle East and North Africa.

“[It] is meant to represent the hand of God as a source of protection and blessings as a reminder of our love for your family and respect for your father, whom we all admire very much,” he said to the child.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world.”

—Aaron Benson

Members of the congregation had little trouble getting behind such a worthy cause.

“I have never been so proud of our North Shore Jewish Center congregation for reaching out to someone in the community who needs our support,” congregant Beverly Kasper said. She also brought a gift bag for Lilianna.

Benson echoed that sentiment in a telephone interview. He recalled his Jewish New Year sermon last fall in which he challenged members of the congregation to go above and beyond at tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that refers to performing acts of kindness in an effort to perfect or repair the world. He asked people to make an effort on the 18th of each month to do something positive beyond what they’d normally do. The 18th was symbolic because in Hebrew, 18 spells “chai,” which means “life.”

He named this effort Team Malachim, the Hebrew word for angels, with the intent to encourage people to reach out to someone they didn’t know, someone who might not be looking for help but could use some.

Helping the Bonacasa family clearly fit his outreach plan to go beyond the synagogue and into the greater Long Island community, and he was proud of the response he got.

“It’s a way to show concern, to bring something good to the lives of others, to increase the love in the world,” he said of the fundraising effort and the desire to help.

Other North Shore communities also reached out to the Bonacasas.

The Sound Beach community welcomed the family into their new neighborhood in June, after Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch helped build a home for the family, which came with a reduced, more affordable mortgage.

There was a local outpour from neighboring hamlets, which came bearing welcome home gifts for the Bonacasas, such as gift cards, toys and a new bike for Lilianna, when they received  keys to the home.

North Shore Jewish Center president Andy Polan agreed that Jewish values need to extend beyond the walls of synagogues and homes.

“It’s very important for all [religious] denominations to encourage members to do things for our country as a whole,” he said. “We learn tolerance, to embrace others and to be sensitive to other people’s tragedies. It really shows what the United States is all about.”

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