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Kayaks

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.”

On Port Jefferson Harbor is the Centennial Park beach where there are four village kayak racks, each with enough space for six kayaks. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Not everyone is on board with a plan to remove non-permitted kayaks from public beaches.

A law proposal from the Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees is stuck in a knot after receiving both support and opposition during a meeting on Monday night, with advocates decrying the vessels that clutter shorelines for long periods of time and critics saying the board is going a bit overboard.

Officials are looking to bring order to Port Jefferson beaches where people leave kayaks strewn across the sand without a permit, unattended for days or even weeks or months.

There are several village kayak racks at Centennial Park beach, on Port Jefferson Harbor, and at the beach at the end of Crystal Brook Hollow Road, on Mount Sinai Harbor — with room for six vessels on each rack. Each year, after receiving applications from residents for a spot on one of the racks, the village holds a lottery to determine which applicants get a slot. There are also signs at the beaches warning that kayaks must be properly stored in racks. But many without a permitted place on the racks simply leave their kayaks on the sand or tied up to a tree.

The village trustees have proposed a law that would give the head of the public works department authority to remove those unpermitted vessels after they have been left unattended for at least 48 hours. The village clerk would give notice that the boats were removed, with a description of the vessels, and after 30 days unclaimed they would be considered abandoned. At that point, the village could auction or dispose of the kayaks.

If someone redeemed a kayak from the department, the village would be able to charge the owner for the costs of removal and storage, and the price of the clerk’s public notification.

Dorothy Court, a resident of Waterview Drive who is adjacent to the Crystal Brook Hollow Road beach, was strongly in favor of the measure.

“I have to deal with these kayaks every single day,” she said at the public hearing on the law Monday, describing one that has been chained to a village sign for a year. “I have, like, a boatyard in front of my house.”

She questioned how many of the people leaving their kayaks are residents, and asked the village to move the kayak racks from her local beach to another place, to lessen the impact on neighbors.

“There are so many parks and beaches to put kayaks in,” Court said.

Bob Laravie, however, said a time limit as short as 48 hours before the village impounds a vessel is “overreaching” and it isn’t the right message to send to people in a maritime village.

“I think the ground should be a right,” he said, calling for the public land to remain open to kayaks.

Joel Levine said the law proposal was “shortsighted.” He called on the village to instead issue more sticker permits to Port Jefferson residents, which would represent both a revenue stream for the government and a way to organize the mess.

As the debate went on, Village Clerk Bob Juliano noted that there were double the number of applications than spaces available on the kayak racks this year, and in response Mayor Margot Garant suggested the village should put in more racks. When she asked for a show of hands from people in the audience without a rack slot who would want a village permit sticker for a vessel, several shot up.

Given the debate on the subject, the village board closed the public hearing but did not vote on the law proposal.