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Veterans

Rocky Point High School unveiled its new Alumni Wall of Honor Nov. 16 in recognition of the many graduates of the district who have entered the armed services over the years.

High school students and teachers were joined in an assembly honoring those on the wall by veterans families, local veterans from VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point with Cmdr. Joe Cognitore, Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) and county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai).

The wall features close to 60 graduates of recent years and those who graduated from many years ago. Also on the wall are bronze plaques emblazoned with the emblem of each branch of the U.S. military.

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

On Thanksgiving eve, as many prepared for the holiday fest, Town of Smithtown officials
and St. James community members came together to give thanks to a set of veterans who often feel forgotten.

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) led the rededication and blessing of the Vietnam War memorial at St. James train station Nov. 21. The town’s parks department employees have recently completed cleaning up, adding features to and landscaping the Sherwood Brothers monument after its condition was brought up by Councilman Tom Lohmann (R).

Ed Springer, commander of American Legion Sherwood Brothers Post 1244 of St. James, speaks at the Nov. 21 ceremony. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“We’re very appreciative for what Tom and the town did for us here, it will be remembered for a long time to come,” said Ed Springer, commander of the American Legion Sherwood Brothers Post 1152 in St. James.

The supervisor said the town engaged in conversation with the Long Island Rail Road over making improvements at the railroad station, like improving the landscaping and painting the trestles and underpasses as part of the Lake Avenue revitalization efforts. During a site visit, Lohmann said he rediscovered the overgrown monument.

“When I started talking to people about the memorial, they asked, ‘What memorial are you talking about?’” the councilman said. “That’s the point. You couldn’t see it. It was overgrown and in complete disrepair.”

When the town sent its park employees to begin taking out overgrown shrubs, Lohmann said he received a call from MTA police officers who showed up and threatened to arrest the men for allegedly for ripping apart the memorial. After a phone call, and the two public agencies reached an agreement moving forward.

The St. James Vietnam War memorial has been cleaned up and the landscaping redone, water and electrical lines run to ensure future maintenance, and a light installed to illuminate the American flag. The monument was first dedicated in memory of the two St. James Sherwood brothers, William and George, who died three weeks apart in France while serving in World War I.

The newly refurbished and cleaned up Vietnam War memorial at St. James LIRR train station. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“I’m sure everyone here has had someone in the military who has served our country,” Sal Riccobono, assistant vice commander of Sgt. John W. Cooke Post 395 of St. James. “We want you to remember all of them and appreciate all they did for us that brought us to this point today.”

Both Springer and Riccobono said that the membership of their veterans organizations are rapidly dwindling, and they both hope to bring newer and younger service members into the fold. Springer said the Sherwood Brothers post has seen 12 of its World War II veterans die in the past year.

“When I tell you from the bottom of my heart, the way to keep their stories alive is to constantly talk about them,” Richard Kitson, local chapter president of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “If you are in that post, what a tribute to the Sherwood brothers this is that you keep their memories alive.”

A former U.S. Marine, Kitson said both his brother, John, and a best friend died serving in Vietnam. He found comfort in the St. James rededication ceremony.

“This is really touching. It’s very, very touching — it’s touched my heart,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.”

Veterans struggling with their time served in the military now have the option of seeking peer support through a program at Island Christian Church in Port Jefferson. Stock photo

A Port Jefferson pastor has a message for veterans struggling with actions taken in their past: you are not alone.

Joining the armed services and venturing overseas, leaving one’s family, being tasked in some cases with taking a life, and in all cases being at least an indirect party to that reality, weighs heavy on a human being’s mind. To try to relieve some of that burden in an informal, judgment-free setting, Pastor Pete Jansson of Island Christian Church in Port Jefferson, in accordance with the Rev. Fred Miller of the Suffolk County American Legion, have established a program called Vet 2 Vet, a peer support group where those who have served and are suffering from “moral injury” can meet with someone who has been through the same as a means of healing.

“Post-traumatic stress is the result of a near-death experience or witnessing a tragic event such as your fellow troops being blown up or killed,” Miller wrote on the subject. “Moral injury is mental injury caused by being forced to do or witness things against your moral values, such as the killing or harming [of] others, witnessing death, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders from authority that are against one’s moral values.”

The program features military members, who have struggled with moral injury themselves previously but have reached a place of inner peace, that have been trained in how to help their fellow veterans deal with moral injury through a Department of Veterans Affairs program. The group meets on the third Tuesday of each month at Island Christian, first in roundtable group discussions, then pairing off in a “buddy system” format, according to Jansson. So far two meetings have been held and Jansson is hoping to get the word out to boost attendance.

“The bottom line is they’re believing a lie, and we’re trying to identify that lie and then replace it with truth and that’s where the challenge is,” he said of the idea that carrying out orders while in the military becomes a burden carried by veterans. “There’s this internal struggle that they have as they begin to recognize that they were there for a purpose and asked to perform this task — not asked but ordered — and that they didn’t actually violate a moral code.”

Jansson said the group is prepared to refer attendees for professional mental health services if needed, through the VA or otherwise, but that the idea of the program is to offer an alternative to those hesitant about reaching out for help. He explained why he wanted to be involved in such a program after meeting Miller, who has ties to the American Legion and has dedicated his post-pastoring life to helping veterans.

“I have a real passion for this village and a real desire to meet felt needs in people’s lives,” said Jansson. “We’ve done grief share classes for people that have gone through a tremendous loss. I personally lost my wife to cancer six years ago this month, and so I’ve been through the grief share.”

Those interested in being involved in the program, either in need of support or to help those seeking it, are instructed to contact Jansson at 631-473-9229 or Miller at 631-395-4646.

Greenlawn American Legion Post 1244 honors all veterans, their spouses and family members for the time and sacrifices they have made to serve our country Nov. 11.

Dennis Madden, commander of American Legion Post 1224, acted as the master of ceremonies for the dozens of veterans, enlisted and community members who came together to pay solemn remembrance of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. The brief ceremony included a performance of the National Anthem along with several wreaths laid at veterans memorial at Greenlawn Memorial Park,  at the intersection of Broadway and Pulaski Road.

Huntington residents gathered in the blustery cold Sunday morning to pay solemn remembrance to those who have served our country.

The Town of Huntington held its annual Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11 at 9 a.m. in Veterans Plaza on the front lawn of Huntington Town Hall in order to honor local veterans and those across the nation. Bill Ober, chairman of Huntington Veterans Advisory Board, served as this year’s master of ceremonies.

“We are celebrating the service of our veterans on the Centennial of the World War I Armistice, which occurred at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the incessant boom of artillery abruptly went silent along the Western Front in France,”  Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said.

Lupinacci said that the town was recently contacted by the family of Walter Marshall, a service member from the Town of Huntington who served in World War I, whose name is in the process of being added to the World War I memorial plaque inside Town Hall.

“On Veterans Day we recognize, honor and thank the brave men and women who have served in our Nation’s armed forces,” Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) said. “We must always remember their sacrifice in the name of our freedom not only on Nov. 11 but also on the other 364 days of the year.”

There are approximately 8,500 veterans living in the township, according to Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D). One of whom is a member of the town board.

“It is humbling to stand amongst other veterans who live in Huntington,” Councilman Ed Smyth (R) said. “It was an honor and a privilege to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps reserve. The Corps has done far more for me than I could ever do for the Corps.”

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Since Rocky Point High School was built in 1971, its graduates have gone on to become musicians, scientists, college athletes and more; but many also have gone into the armed services.

Now, the Rocky Point school district is looking to show its appreciation for those graduates turned veterans by creating a new Wall of Honor featuring the faces of close to 60 men and women who made the choice to serve after high school.

“We recognize the students for so many different things throughout the school year, whether it be academics, sports-related accomplishments, clubs — and this is just one thing that it’s nice to recognize these students for all they’ve done for our country,” Rocky Point High School Principal Susan Crossan said.

Crossan had seen similar walls in other school districts such as Longwood and Comsewogue and said she figured it was time her school also honored its homegrown veterans. She originally pitched the idea to a number of history teachers at the high school, including Jamie Mancini and Heather Laughlin-Cotter, who came to appreciate the idea very quickly she said, though it was high school social studies teacher Richard Acritelli, himself a nine-year army reservist veteran, who truly picked up the idea and ran with it.

“Rocky Point is a blue-collar area with a lot of men and women in the service community, a lot of policemen, firemen and many who served in the armed services,” Acritelli said. “We have strong ties to the defense of this country.”

Since spring, many Rocky Point teachers and students worked together in an effort to find and contact the district’s veterans. Acritelli said it was a balancing act, doing their best to get students who attended Rocky Point High School many years ago in addition to ones who only graduated recently.

“We have a variety of veterans up on the wall, such as those in military academies, those who served in the Cold War, those in the War on Terror, young people in ROTC programs, and those who literally just left the school,” Acritelli said. “In a short period of time — with the number of names we were able to get compiled — it’s going to be really tastefully done.”

Acritelli said almost all funding was provided by local sponsors, including the Rocky Point Teachers Association, the Rocky Point Athletic Booster Club, the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and the nonprofit Feal Good Foundation.

The wall is being constructed by Ronkonkoma-based Fricke Memorials, and each plaque will include a picture of the veteran, their name, rank and branch of armed service. Along with the plaques the wall will include black granite etchings and bronze emblems representing each military branch.

Some of the Rocky Point graduates named on the upcoming wall go back more than 50 years, before Rocky Point High School even existed, when students who graduated from the middle school instead traveled all the way to Port Jefferson to finish their education. Crossan said she expects more names to be added to the wall as the news of it in the community spreads.

“It’s very important that we show loyalty to the students who have served, that they know that their school has recognized their services at home and abroad,” Acritelli said.

The Wall of Honor will be located just to the right of the main entrance to the high school past the main auditorium entrance.

Crossan said the wall will be installed this coming weekend, and all plaques will be put up on the wall Nov. 12. The school will be hosting a school assembly celebrating Veterans Day Nov. 16, which will be followed by an unveiling of the wall.

Huntington town officials, members of Veterans of War Post 1469 and Lipsky Construction representatives celebrate the official groundbreaking on a veterans housing complex in Huntington Station Oct. 30. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Columbia Terrace veterans affordable housing project, which has been promised for close to eight years, might be finally coming to fruition.

Town of Huntington officials, members of the Huntington Community Development Agency (CDA) and members of the local Veterans of Foreign War Post 1469 joined Bayport-based Lipsky Construction Oct. 30 to celebrate the start of the project’s construction.

Huntington Station has been waiting decades for neighborhood and economic revitalization, which over the past several years is beginning to mobilize,” Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “Our veterans and their families make many sacrifices to keep them safe, and we owe them the opportunity and ability for owning a home they can live in.”

Our veterans and their families make many sacrifices to keep them safe, and we owe them the opportunity and ability for owning a home they can live in.”

— Chad Lupinacci

The new development features 14 apartments at the corner of Lowndes Avenue and Railroad Street in Huntington Station. It consist of six, one-bedroom units and eight, two-bedroom condo-style apartments, according to CDA Director Leah Jefferson.

The project was put out to bid again in June with a budget of approximately $3.5 million, Jefferson said. Lipsky Construction was the lowest bidder and a contract signed in September. The project is expected to be completed within 300 days, and have all units sold and occupied by Sept. 30, 2019.

“When I heard it about veterans, I took extra steps to make sure we got on the project,” said Barry Lipsky, the president of Lipsky Construction.“It’s a matter of how much to give back.”

The costs of the units will be offered at 80 percent of the Nassau-Suffolk median income, according to town spokeswoman Lauren Lembo. The one-bedroom apartments  starting at $200,000.

The veterans housing project was first proposed back in 2010, according to Lupinacci. That same year, the CDA was awarded $1.56 million grant from the New York’s Empire State Economic Development Fund Program. An additional $2 million dollars were borrowed by the town from the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund And Agency Fund for the sake of the project, which will be paid back upon the sale of the apartments. Interim funding has been secured by Huntington’s elected officials through People’s United Bank in the form of a construction loan.

“What I found out over the years, veterans don’t ask for a lot. They’re not banging on doors saying ‘gimme, gimme, gimme.” 

— Rick Seryneck

Councilwoman Joan Cergol (D), former director of the town’s CDA, said one of challenges has been  rising costs compared to the amount of grant funding available.

The town has also secured $250,000 in funds from the county to go toward road realignment, curbing and street lighting, which Lupinacci said would be installed after construction is finished.

The supervisor said a lottery will be held to fill the apartments closer to the project’s completion.

Rick Serynek, a member of the Huntington Veterans Advisory Board, said he knows veterans who could make use of affordable housing. He said  many of those who have served are not the type to ask for help, even if they need it.

“What I found out over the years, veterans don’t ask for a lot. They’re not banging on doors saying ‘gimme, gimme, gimme,” Serynek said. “All they want is a fair shake.”

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Contractors volunteer time, supplies needed renovate Nesconset Plaza shopping center storefront

Veteran Henry Stolberg, far left, greet others inside Paws of War’s new Nesconset location. Photo by Kyle Barr

Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War is busy wagging their tails, happy to have a brand-new dog house.

With the aid of local contractors, the nonprofit organization, which supplies and helps train service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness, has now moved to a new location that features more space for dog training and new room for grooming.

Robert Misseri, president of Paws of War, said when they opened the old space a year ago it quickly became apparent the size of the location was simply not enough to cover how many retired service members were coming to them for help.

“There was an explosion of needs — with constant referrals by [Veterans Affairs], and we realized we needed to expand and expand quick,” Misseri said.

There was an explosion of needs — with constant referrals by [Veterans Affairs], and we realized we needed to expand and expand quick.”

— Robert Misseri

Paws of War is now at a location just a few stores down in the Nesconset Plaza shopping center from their previous storefront, but the space is double that of what they previously had. It includes twice the floor space for dog training as well as a backroom area that Misseri said is planned to be used for dog grooming and care.

Henry Stolberg, a marine veteran and volunteer for Paws of War, said that since getting his dog, a black Labrador named Rocky, life has become so much easier to bear. Rocky was trained in a partnership with Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank that allowed a veteran inmate named Jermaine to help train the dog for Stolberg.

“Now he goes everywhere with me,” Stolberg said. “Rocky can break me out of nightmares at night, if I have anxiety attacks, he will put his pressure on me, and when I get angry, he will pick up on it and he’ll alert me that I have to calm down.”

When Paws of War originally announced their intent to move into a new space, Misseri worried about finding a way to furnish and remodel what had once been a Dollar Store, where the carpet and walls were worn down with misuse and age. Luckily Ed Rollins, the owner of NDA Kitchens, a local Nesconset contractor, along with a number of subcontractors, all stepped up to help supply all the labor and materials completely free for the nonprofit.

“They showed me the space and it was disgusting … [Misseri] was telling me what they need, walking around in circles, and I turned to him and said ‘Rob, I got this,’” Rollins said. “Everybody, all the subcontractors, said the same thing I did: ‘dogs and veterans? I’m in.’”

Feds recommend trio of changes in staffing, hiring and overtime management to facility’s new leadership

Northport VA Medical Center. File photo

A federal investigation into Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s four community living centers has shown a troubling trend of chronic nursing staff shortages and excessive overtime, issues that could have placed patients “at a higher risk for adverse events.”

In one case, federal investigators found a nurse’s assistant worked double shifts for six straight days — more than 96 hours in a single week – while expected to diligently oversee a patient requiring one-on-one care.

As the Northport facility is the only VA Medical Center on Long Island it serves more than 31,000 patients per year and oversees several outpatient clinical sites. Its four nursing homes are located in two buildings, with an approximate capacity of 170 beds.

The Office of Inspector General, a division of U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, charged with independent oversight of Department of Veterans Affairs programs, received several anonymous complaints about the quality of care received at Northport VAMC in 2017 following the deaths of two patients.

In September 2017, the OIG launched a year-long investigation into staffing shortages after receiving two further emails: the first from an employee at Northport VAMC, the second from a liaison to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The investigation produced a Sept. 18 report (click here to read the full report) that found Northport VAMC’s leadership knew about the staff shortages, forced administrative level nurses to care for patients, and yet still continued to accept new patients despite knowing they wouldn’t have the staff needed to provide the expected level of care.

Federal investigators recognized in August 2017 there was significant turnover in the leadership at the Northport VAMC, affecting key positions such as its director, acting chief of staff and acting nurse executive, who were cited “as catalysts for this change.” Staff members’ remarks indicated it’s given them hope for a better future.

The agency recommended a series of changes for the Northport VAMC pertaining to the nursing staff currently being enacted, and the facility says is bringing immediate tangible results.

Two patient deaths

Anonymous complaints about two patient deaths at the Northport VAMC in 2017 started the series of federal investigations into the facility.

The first death was a male patient in his late 60s who died as a result of choking on his food. Federal inspectors found insufficient evidence the man’s death was due to a lack of nurse oversight, as alleged in the complaints, but did conclude Northport VAMC had ongoing challenges in maintaining basic necessary staffing levels.

“Conditions such as staffing shortages could create an environment where the increased workload assigned to each staff member was such that it became more difficult to remain vigilant,” the report reads.

A forum was held for the Northport VA nursing homes staff to voice their concerns with the facility and its operation while an investigation of the first patient’s death was ongoing.

“Many [staff members] shared a concern about staffing levels being too low,” the report reads.

A second death raised claims of poor quality of care in the Northport vets nursing homes, after a patient in his mid-60s slipped, fell and fractured his hip. He underwent surgery and six days later stopped breathing. Allegations included the VA staff failed to protect the patient from falling and failed to properly provide
one-on-one observation post surgery, neither of which was substantiated by federal investigators.

The investigation into the second death showed the nurse’s assistant caring for him was on her sixth consecutive day of double shifts — 16 hours at a stretch. Investigators again cited “concern that working extra hours with double shifts could lead to staff becoming tired and less vigilant.”

A staff member working double shifts was not common practice, according to Northport VAMC spokesman Levi Spellman, who said union workers are contractually required to have 10 to 12 hours off between nursing shifts.

Closer look at staffing numbers

Records pulled by the federal investigators showed Northport VAMC has been chronically short of nursing staff dating back to at least 2016. Allegations were made that understaffing could lead to a higher rate of “nurse-sensitive outcomes,” such as surgical wounds getting infected, urinary tract infections, ulcers and pneumonia.

Northport’s four nursing homes were found to be short approximately 6.3 full-time employees in 2016 needed to meet VA’s recommended number of nursing hours spent with patients per day. By 2017, the facility’s staffing shortage had more than doubled, with 15.3 additional full-time employees needed. Northport VAMC’s nursing homes were only staffed at 60 to 80 percent of recommended levels over the two years, according to federal investigators.

Northport VAMC’s leadership attempted to tackle the short staffing issue by using “floating” shifts and overtime — sometimes mandatory, according to the federal report. Floating shifts meant staff from other areas of the VAMC were brought in to assist with patients in the nursing homes.

In 2016, Northport VAMC’s nursing home employees put in a  total of 19,991 hours of overtime. It nearly doubled by the end of 2017 as only 107.9 of the facility’s authorized 128 full-time positions were filled, according to Spellman, causing the facility’s overtime costs to skyrocket to nearly $1.5 million.

“Nurse managers had no mechanism to alert them if one of their unit nursing personnel worked excessive OT,” the report reads.

Federal investigators found part of the nursing homes’ staffing issues were due to an inability to hire and retain the members of its nursing staff. Northport VAMC got approval to hire 10 additional registered nurses and 10 nurse assistants as intermittent staff in November 2016, though the team wasn’t assembled until August 2017.

Often the process of hiring new nursing staff was delayed. In one instance, Northport’s leadership said two applicants interviewed and hired in January 2017 were told they would not start working until July.

“This delay in hiring often resulted in the loss of selected applicants who took other jobs,” the report reads.

The leadership of Northport VAMC said the high cost of living on Long Island has also made finding and maintaining a full-time staff difficult.

“Not only does this affect our ability to retain talent, but to recruit it as well,” spokesman Spellman said.

Steps to improvement

The federal investigators made three recommendations to Northport VAMC in order to  ensure it has adequate nursing care for its patients and improve quality of care for residents.

First, that the VAMC’s acting director, Dr. Cathy Cruise, completes a review of the nursing homes to ensure staffing levels align with the needs of its current residents. More staff should be recruited and hired to fill the current vacancies “until optimal staffing is attained,” reads the report.

Spellman said leadership of Northport VAMC, including Cruise, have already started taking action, implementing changes to improve the quality of care and working conditions.

A registered nurse clinical coordination position has been added in order to streamline nursing staff’s efficiency, according to Spellman. At the beginning of 2018, the facility was given approval to hire 2.6 more full-time employees and another 10 staff members were recently approved to bring the total nursing staff to the equivalent 140.6 positions.

“A staffing methodology is in the process of being completed, with additional staff expected,” Spellman said.

The Northport VA has received approval to directly hire its nursing staff and is giving new employees immediate start dates, according to him. It also had plans to expand its nursing floating pool, and to cross train other VAMC nurses in long-term care to continue to grow the available number of staff who can provide residents with care.

Third, Northport’s leadership was also told to improve its management of staff’s overtime hours and make sure of future responsible use of financial resources, citing the $1.5 million in 2017 overtime.

“Federal employees are expected to be good stewards of government funds,” the report reads. “The OIG found a lack of accountability for managing OT expenditures.

Spellman said the nursing homes staff had a total weekly average of 437.3 hours of overtime for the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. This indicates a significant drop from last year, where the total weekly average of overtime exceeded 750 hours.

“All of this is to say that, while the OIG has helped Northport identify areas in which we can improve, we have implemented measures to make those improvements — and we are already seeing results,” Spellman said.

When it came to this year’s annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the Centereach Pool Complex, Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) decided to do something different. On July 21, the 2018 version of the event was transformed into the Hoops for Military Heroes.

“We always try to do something to highlight veterans and try to bring them together with other community members,” LaValle said.

Farmingville Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Post 400, Tordik-Diedrich-Duffield VFW Post 4927 and AMVETS Post 48 are all in the councilman’s district, and he said he thought the basketball tournament would be a good way for the veterans and young people in the area to interact.

This year’s event attracted more than 60 students in seventh to 12th grade and approximately a dozen veterans, according to LaValle. Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Daniel Losquadro (R) donated funds for the beverages and snacks, and members of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials refereed the games for free. All funds raised will be donated to local veterans’ organizations.

The councilman said the event was successful, and he already has ideas for next year, including assigning a veteran as captain to each team.

“I would definitely love to continue this tradition,” LaValle said.

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