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Rocky Point VFW

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.”

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Glen, Zachary and Renée Cote are receiving a new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo from Renée Cote

By Desirée Keegan

After a series of unfortunate events, a string of fortunate ones led the Cote family to their soon-to-be new home in Miller Place.

Glen and Renée Cote, and their 7-year-old son Zachary, were chosen to be the receivers of the 11th home for returning veterans, a program put in place by Rocky Point VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch.

Renée Cote said to be chosen for the home on Helme Avenue is a dream come true.

“It’s extremely overwhelming — we feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’m just happy that my son is going to have a home and that my husband and I are going to be able to live in a community that’s done nothing but support us.”

The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The framing is up for the new home on Helme Avenue in Miller Place, which the Cote family will receive as part of the homes for returning veterans. Photo by Desirée Keegan

The family has, until recently, lived in a rental home in Sound Beach, but found out in March that it was being evicted because the landlord had let the home fall into foreclosure. But that’s not where the hardships began.

Glen Cote, 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, met and married his wife following his service. In 2002, Renée Cote was 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. As a result of her illness, which there is no known cure for, she has suffered three strokes.

In 2009, the couple welcomed Zachary into their lives, who in June 2014 was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, and has since endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy. His treatment had to be halted when he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

“We’ve had the most horrific circumstances happen to us, but in every event there’s been such a huge blessing that’s come out of it,” Renée Cote said. Two years ago, the family was chosen to be recipients of a fundraising effort during Shoreham-Wading River’s Lax Out Cancer fundraiser, which supports local children with cancer. The family was chosen again as the beneficiaries of this year’s event.

“This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

—Renée Cote

“We’ve mad a lot of friends, a lot of contacts,” Zachary’s mother said. “There are so many people in this area that genuinely want to help people, and it’s so amazing to be on the receiving end of it. It’s awkward, but it’s very humbling. My husband and I just look at each other and feel extremely blessed.”

Due to his illness, Zachary had to start kindergarten a year late, and his parents were worried about how he would manage school, but Miller Place school district has also been supportive of the family, and their fears melted into appreciation.

“The way that the teachers and faculty have personally taken to Zachary on a whole different level, it’s just incredible to see the love, and it’s a very humbling feeling to know that strangers are so willing to help,” his father said. “It was tremendously important that we stay in the district, and for this to become available, so we can set roots here and Zachary can be stable and make friends in the neighborhood. I couldn’t ask for much more at this point in time.”

Glen Cote also suffered a serious incapacitating injury on the job, to the point where he qualified for Social Security disability. Testing showed that his injuries led to a diagnosis of degenerative disk disease and shoulder and knee arthritis.

Following the eviction notice, the Landmark Properties owner was connected with the family when a friend of the Cote family contacted the vice president of Bridgehampton National Bank, who sent out an email to the chain. The manager of the Rocky Point branch knew what Baisch does for veterans, and immediately contacted him on their behalf.

That’s when Baisch asked to meet them.

Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote
Zachary Cote enjoys a day at the beach. Photo from Renée Cote

“When they came in her, I didn’t know them from Adam, but they were very forthcoming and told me their story. It was a little overwhelming to take in,” he said.

He told them he’d contact Cognitore and get back to them, but the family wasn’t going to get their hopes up.

“We left thinking that there was just no way that we’ll be able to get this to go in our favor,” Renée Cote said, but the following week they were asked to come back to his office and were told the good news. “I honestly never thought something like this would happen to us. This isn’t a free movie ticket or a handbag. This is a home that we otherwise would not have been able to afford. We’re still trying to process it.”

The family will be moved in by Christmas, which Baisch is thrilled about, after he found out that the Make-A-Wish Foundation couldn’t send Zachary to LEGOLAND until next year.

“The happenstance of this is incredible,” he said. “Can you think of anyone else more deserving? I feel privileged to do what I do. It’s been a very good year for me. I’m on cloud nine.”

Knowing that they’ll never have to move again is what excites the family most.

“My son will make marks on the walls and I’ll tell him you did that when you were 8, you did that when you were 9,” the mother said. “Now knowing that no one is going to come knocking on my door telling me ‘you need to get out’ because of somebody else is mind blowing.”

Director of Suffolk County's Vetereans Service Agency's Human Services Divison, Thomas Ronayne; Rocky Point VFW Post Commander Joe Cognitore; Brian Fabian, executive of Four Seasons Sunrooms & Windows; Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch and Councilman Kevin LaValle teamed up to help build a new home for a veteran in Miller Place. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Suffolk County has a rich stock of heroes, and lawmakers this week were making special moves to say thanks.

“Of 62 counties nobody has more veterans who call their county home then we do right here,” said Thomas Ronayne, Director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency’s Human Service Division.

So with boasting so many veterans should come a big way of thanking those who return from their huge acts of service. And Rocky Point continues to do just that.

Mark Baisch, a developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, first met VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore at a fundraiser that Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) hosted. Baisch said he didn’t know anyone in the room except for Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden).

While speaking, Baisch said Cognitore lamented to him that he’d like to do more for returning veterans.

Mark Baisch, owner of Landmark Properties, thanks all those who have helped make building homes for returning veterans possible. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Mark Baisch, owner of Landmark Properties, thanks all those who have helped make building homes for returning veterans possible. Photo by Desirée Keegan

That’s where the idea of building homes came about, after Baisch mentioned a small piece of property in Sound Beach back in 2009. Since then, the two have partnered to build 10 homes for returning veterans, and will soon break ground on the 11th and 12th houses, the next being on Helm Avenue in Miller Place.

“It just shows you how little things can happen and can foster themselves into things like this,” Baisch said of his “crazy, chance meeting” that he and Cognitore had. “We are delivering homes nine and 10 on June 6. ‘D-Day’ is going to be delivery day for us this year.’”

It was no small undertaking, and Baisch mentioned that besides Cognitore’s help, he couldn’t have done it without the help of his employees who work tirelessly to get the job done, and the county and town for taking care of permits, entitlement of land and sanitary flow credits.

“Everyone seems to use me as the catalyst or the lightening rod, but the county and the town do the best that they can to make sure that this program goes off without a hitch,” he said.

LaValle said that what he does working with those like Baisch and Cognitore is important to the community.

“What started with a humble beginning — this is what we have to do for our veterans — government working with the private sector to put our veterans first and make sure we take care of the people that take care of us and put their lives at risk for our freedoms here at home,” he said.

And others have followed suit.

Four Seasons Sunrooms in Holbrook donated 22 windows and a sliding glass door toward the completion of the next home in Miller Place. LaValle went to high school with Cammie Manganello, marking manager for the company, who reached out to him because she wanted to get involved.

“I gave Mark a call and everything played out from there,” she said. “I think the work they do is excellent. These are people that protect us and they give us the life that we have, so if we can give back in any way, absolutely we should be doing it.”

Windows like the one scene here are being donated by Four Seasons Sunrooms & Windows in Holbrook toward the construction of a home for a veteran in Miller Place. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Windows like the one scene here are being donated by Four Seasons Sunrooms & Windows in Holbrook toward the construction of a home for a veteran in Miller Place. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Baisch said the company has never received a donation of windows before, which is a big purchase. Manganello and others hope the donation, and the program that Baisch and Cognitore have created, serve as a model to show others what they can be doing.

“It’s amazing on Long Island to see how much they care,” LaValle said of companies like Landmark Properties and Four Seasons Sunrooms. “It’s not always about the bottom line to many of our builders here and Mark is a prime example of that. He gives back.”

Ronayne said he agrees, adding that even the veterans working tirelessly, almost entirely behind the scenes for what veterans deserve and have earned.

He pointed out most specifically, the work Cognitore has done.

“We are able to be a part of something so important and so incredibly unique here on Long Island,” Ronayne said. “Don’t underestimate Joe Cognitore. I always look to see if his wings are visible under his jacket because he really has become a guardian angel to countless veterans. He’s a presence in the community, on Long Island, as a national advocate — every step he takes is intended to serve veterans of this great nation.”

Baisch said that all those involved are just good people doing the right thing, and added he is honored to be involved in the process.

“I will keep doing this … I’m not going to stop,” he said. “I love this program and I have no plan to stop doing it. It’s turned out to be something much more than I ever envisioned when Joe and I started talking about doing this.”

Tommy and Sue Sullivan pose for a photo in front of their soon-to-be old, Superstorm Sandy-damaged house prior to revamping. With hard hats on, the two prepare to help Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County help renovate their home. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Tommy Sullivan has always been paying it forward.

So when Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk reached out to help renovate his Sandy-damaged home, he said he was overcome with emotion.

“We’re really overwhelmed by this,” Tommy Sullivan said of he and his wife Sue’s reaction to the help and support they’ve received. “It was looking hopeless for us for a while. We couldn’t have done this ourselves. It was just way, way too much work and, again, we’re just so overwhelmed and happy and just very, very grateful.”

The effort to help the Sullivan family started when members of the VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point heard about the damage done to the Rocky Point home. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the house sustained roof damage that could not be repaired. As time went on, the damages became worse, which rendered the house unlivable for Tommy Sullivan, a U.S. army veteran, and his wife Sue, a substitute teacher. The family was forced to spend several nights out staying at friends’ homes.

The front of the Sullivan's house shows the exterior and roof damage brought on by Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Desirée Keegan
The front of the Sullivan’s house shows the exterior and roof damage brought on by Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Desirée Keegan

But John Rago, outreach coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs project known as the Suffolk County United Veterans group, stepped up to help the Sullivans find sanctuary when he met Diane Burke, executive director and CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk County at a luncheon in Patchogue back in March.

At a meeting for the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, Rago explained the program’s support and services for veteran families, which included a rapid-rehousing and homeless prevention program for veterans.

“We were reaching dead ends all over the place and I happened to be sitting at the luncheon across from Diane and I introduced myself,” he said. “I asked her if she did teardown and rebuilds, and she said yes, so I started to tell her about Tommy and before I even finished she said, ‘We’re in.’”

Burke said she was more than happy to help who she saw as such a well-deserved recipient.

“I thought, ‘We have to make this happen,’ and we just put the pieces together and we’re here to support a local veteran to recreate a place to call home,” Burke said of the initiative. “Not only did Tom serve our country, but he continues to serve our community, so that is absolutely what we’re about. It’s great to partner with somebody who understands volunteerism and actually lives it.”

Tommy Sullivan was a member of the West Point band for three years when he served during the Vietnam War. He is an original member of Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge, a musical group best known for their million-selling rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “The Worst That Could Happen,” and has been performing solo since then at charity organizations and events.

Some events include Long Island State Veterans Home’s annual Golf Classic, Wounded Warrior Project events, Rocky Point high school’s Veteran’s Day and 9/11 ceremonies. Just last Friday, the veteran sang at cancer benefit for a friend with brain cancer.

“When people with a good cause call, we never turn it down, because that’s it’s own reward,” he said. “Whenever I get a call, especially from the vet’s organizations, I’m there. I set up my stuff and I sing, and it feels great to have this support. We’re all the same kind of people here and it’s special because it’s all about the heart. Everyone here has a big heart and we’re just very happy.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), who said she knows the Sullivans as longtime residents, said the work Tommy Sullivan does for his community is extraordinary.

“It’s a very exciting time for all of us to be able to help them because they’ve helped so many people through their advocacy and their volunteering,” she said. “He has the voice of an angel. It’ll bring goose bumps to you. It really, really will.”

The councilwoman also said she sees the family as more than deserving of this renovation.

“They pay it forward all the time,” Bonner said. “They never ask for anything in return, and they’ve fallen on some difficult times — probably from volunteering so much and not asking for money. Helping is so easy to do, and it’s the best part of my job. I believe it is part of the main reason why we have public service, such as council people.”

The work for the eight-week project began on Oct. 19 with several different projects including reframing and reroofing; the installation of new electric, plumbing; new interior fixtures; remodeling to the flooring, kitchen and bathroom; and new windows and doors throughout the home.

“I’m very happy that they decided to help Tommy and Susan out and I can’t wait until we give them the keys to their brand new house,” Rago said. “It’s nice to help a veteran, especially one that gives back so much to the veteran community.”

Sue Sullivan said she was excited to remain in the couple’s same home they’ve lived in since 1996, and said the love and care she has received is what she believes life is all about.

“Everyone taking care of everybody — we dedicate our lives to that,” she said. “This is the most wonderful thing that could happen in our lives besides marrying each other. As community members, we want everyone to know we’re here for them for anything. If you need us, we’ll come. Everything that everyone is doing and the way they’re contributing, they’re our family now, and that’s just a forever family.