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Veterans

New Ground held a ribbon cutting ceremony at its Huntington transitional home for homeless veterans. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Two United States military veterans and their families will be the joining the Huntington community shortly as they take the keys to their new home.

New Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing veteran homelessness, held a ribbon cutting ceremony May 14 to celebrate the completion of its new two-family Rockne Street transitional home.

“This is such a big deal for us,” said Shannon Boyle, executive director of the nonprofit. “This is our first residential property although we’ve been providing services to homeless veterans and their families for over two decades.”

“This is our first residential property although we’ve been providing services to homeless veterans and their families for over two decades.”
– Shannon Boyle

Boyle said her Levittown-based organization will work in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program offered by Northport VA’s Housing and Urban Development department to provide a place to live for homeless vets while they receive educational training, social services and financial literacy training.

“Out of the 62 counties in New York state, Suffolk County leads not only in terms of veterans in population, but also in the number of homeless veterans,” Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “It’s great that this two-family home will provide those coming back an opportunity to raise a family in a great neighborhood.”

The home’s first residents are expected to move in June 1, according to Boyle, of which one family has already been identified. She said the veteran is a single mother who is raising two daughters, ages 5 and 7. The girls will be enrolled in Harborfields school district.

“Through Northport VA’s VASH program, the homeless veterans receive a voucher to help afford rent while receiving educational services,” Boyle said.

The veteran is meeting with a social worker from New Ground every week to create and outline a series of goals while studying for her college entrance exams, according to Boyle. The family is anticipated to live in the home for a period of three to five years before being able to afford to rent a market-rate apartment or become homeowners.

It’s great that this two-family home will provide those coming back an opportunity to raise a family in a great neighborhood.”
– Chad Lupinacci

Boyle said a second veteran and his or her family has not yet been identified and approved, but several candidates are currently in the process of being interviewed and screened.

“This is really going to be a miracle in these families lives,” U.S. Rep Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said. “A miracle like this only happens when people at New Grounds and the supporting groups put in the effort.

Boyle said New Ground was able to complete the house thanks to Grant Havasy, managing partner of Blue & Gold Homes in Huntington, donating his time as general contractor overseeing the project. Other companies including AvalonBay Communities, Appliance World, Cosentino, Eagle Electrical Group Inc., and Prince Carpet & Floors also donated products and services.

“On behalf of all the veteran families who will reside in this home as they work to put their lives back on track and establish a brighter future, I extend a heartfelt thank you to all who have made this possible,” Boyle said. “The outpouring of generosity has been tremendous from so many individuals and businesses that we have been able to transform this house beyond what we had dreamed possible.”

Clarence Beavers was the last surviving original member of the first all African-American parachute unit

A secluded Kings Park trail was dedicated to honor a Huntington veteran, who is remembered as “humble” and yet “a trailblazer” by his family and friends.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation unveiled a plaque April 20 dedicating the walking path of the Kings Park Unique Area off Meadow Road to Sgt. Clarence Beavers. He was the last surviving original member of the first class of African-American paratroopers from the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known better as the Triple Nickles. He died Dec. 4, 2017. “This is a long overdue honor to someone who obviously was a great American and a hometown hero here in Suffolk County,” said Peter Scully, the county’s deputy executive.

During World War II, Beavers and his fellow paratroopers worked jointly with the U.S. military and United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service on Operation Firefly in 1945. Their mission, as smokejumpers, was to respond to any threat or fires caused by the Japanese incendiary bomb attacks on the nation’s western forests.

“My father would be honored, very honored. It was very important to him that the 555th [battalion] and what they did be remembered.”
– Charlotta Beavers

In the summer of 1945, the Triple Nickle paratroopers responded to 36 fires and made more than 1,200 jumps, according to Deidra McGee, the U.S. Forest Services’ liaison for the Triple Nickles. McGee said the unit also led the way in the racial desegregation of the military starting in 1948.

“As people come and enjoy this beautiful trail, they can think of Sgt. Beavers and what he worked so hard to protect for all of us, the beautiful forests of the United States, particularly the west coast,” said state Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James). “It’s an appropriate tribute.”

The Kings Park Unique Area is a 69-acre green space where residents can hike, bow hunt and go wildlife watching. The 0.3-mile trail dedicated to Beavers is handicapped accessible and features an interpretive kiosk that tells the story of the Triple Nickles. The site was chosen because it’s the closest state-owned woodlands to his home, according to DEC spokesman Bill Fonda.

“My father would be honored, very honored,” his daughter Charlotta Beavers said. “It was very important to him that the 555th [battalion] and what they did be remembered.”

Lelena Beavers said she and her husband, Clarence, moved to Huntington in the late 1980s, after he finished his military service, to raise their five daughters and son. He continued to work for the federal government in the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense working as a computer systems analyst and programmer.

“He was a man of faith, a man of courage, and a true leader in his community.”
– Rev. James Rea, Jr.

“Wherever he went, he would always get involved in the community,” his daughter Charlotta Beavers said.

Rev. James Rea,Jr., of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Huntington Station, recalled how Beavers played a pivotal role in helping the church after fire approximately 25 years ago when it was without a pastor.

“Clarence Beavers stepped up out of the ashes, not afraid of the fire or the smoke, and had the leadership that was necessary to have the church restored,” the pastor said. “He was a man of faith, a man of courage, and a true leader in his community.”

Beavers was also a member of the American Legion Greenlawn Post 1244, involved in the Wyandanch Reserve Officers’ Training Corps., and helped found the 555th Parachute Infantry Association, Inc. and traveled nationally speaking about the unit.

“We owe a great deal of gratitude to Mr. Beavers that those who served in a secret war, jumping into fires in near impossible conditions while fighting racism at every turn,” said Smithtown Councilwoman Lisa Inzerillo (R). “Everyone here tell his story, tell their story to everyone you meet, and let it be known that courage has no color

Attention all veterans and their caregivers:
Operation-Initiative Foundation will present a Holistic Healing Workshop for Veterans with PTSD and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 716 Route 25A, Rocky Point on Saturday, April 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. This event will feature speakers that will address the advances made in their respective disciplines and in Complementary and Alternative Medicine that are at the forefront in treating veterans who have been diagnosed as having PTSD. Additional discussion will focus on supportive needs of their family caregivers. All veterans and caregivers should bring a copy of their DD 214. All information is kept completely confidential. Seating is limited and lunch will be provided. To reserve your spot, call 631-744-9355.
The mission of the Operation-Initiative Foundation is to bring awareness, information and support to veterans and their caregivers who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks about the expansion of the VetsSuccess on Campus program to Suffolk and Nassau community colleges at a press conference in Selden April 4. Photo from Lee Zeldin

Students who have served and their families are receiving some transitional support.

U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Peter King (R-Seaford) announced the expansion of the VetsSuccess on Campus program to Suffolk and Nassau County community colleges. The initiative, through the Department of Veterans Affairs, helps veterans, service members and their qualified dependents succeed in school using a coordinated delivery of on-campus benefits assistance, including referral services and peer-to-peer counseling. The program is intended to lead students to graduation and prepare them to enter the workforce in viable careers.

Services may be accessed by:

  • Service members and veterans eligible for any of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs educational programs, including Post 9/11 GI Bill and Montgomery GI Bill
  • Service members and veterans attended training through the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program
  • Eligible dependents of veterans who are in receipt of VA education benefits, including spouses attending school through the Post 9/11 GI Bill and eligible children

“Our nation’s servicemen and women put their lives on the line to protect us, and when they return home, they have earned nothing less than our unwavering support when transitioning back into civilian life,” Zeldin said during an announcement of the program’s expansion at Suffolk County Community College April 4. “The expansion of the VetsSuccess on Campus program means local veterans here at Suffolk and Nassau will have access to an even wider rage of tools at their disposal to help them transition into their new lives after military service.”

Suffolk County is home to the largest number of veterans in the state. SCCC serves more than 700 military-connected students annually across three campuses, and NCCC serves more than 300.

Students like retired Air Force Master Sgt. Olivia McMahon benefit from the program, and she said she’s thrilled to hear that what she was once provided remote access to will now feature a more personal connection to resources and benefits.

“As a single working parent and veteran, I cannot stress enough the importance of this program,” the SCCC student said. “It allows us to reach our educational goals and further educate our community.”

VetsSuccess on-ampus counselors provide:

  • Adjustment counseling to resolve problems interfering with completion of educational programs and entrance into employment
  • Vocational testing
  • educational and career counseling
  • Expedited VR&E services
  • Support and assistance to all veterans with VA benefits regardless of entitlement, benefit usage or enrollment status

Christopher Holder, the VetsSuccess on-campus program counselor, was at the April 4 press conference to talk to veterans about his position in the program and share firsthand experience with re-acclimating to society.

“As a veteran, as a disabled veteran, I have made the transition these students are making now,” he said. “I hope that my experience on both sides, as a veteran and as an administrator, will help these veterans make theirs.”

During the event, Zeldin and King presented SCCC Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Christopher Adams, with an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the expansion of the program and to honor the veterans it serves.

“Suffolk County Community College has a long history of assisting student veterans and maximizing their benefits and achieving their educational goals,” Adams said. “They deserve it and we are honored to be able to recognize their service to our country in this way.”

VetsSuccess on Campus began as a pilot program in 2009 at the University of South Florida in Tampa and has expanded to such an extent that SCCC and Nassau are now two of 99 colleges in the nation with the program.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, standing, visits with James and Noreen Saladino after the couple shared how adult day health care has helped them face service-related health issues in 2016. File photo by Phil Corso

By Alex Petroski

Disabled veterans received some good news March 28.

President Donald Trump (R) signed the Adult Day Health Care Act into law this week, a bipartisan bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) that will expand access to health care for disabled veterans who need extra assistance and special attention in their daily lives, according to a press release from Zeldin’s office.

“This is important legislation that provides a valuable and necessary service to our nation’s veterans,” Zeldin said in a statement. “By expanding access to [the] Adult Day Health Care [Act], we can ensure that all veterans receive the best and most efficient outpatient services that provide each veteran with the assistance and special attention they need, while still allowing them to maintain their independence.”

The bill defines the program as a reimbursable treatment option through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Previously, the program was only accessible for disabled veterans at three state veterans homes in the country, leaving the expense of health care oftentimes directly shouldered by the veteran and his or her family, according to the press release. One of the three homes was Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook.

The Adult Day Health Care Act provides comprehensive medical and personal care combined with engaging social activities for the physically or cognitively impaired, as well as an array of therapies and counseling.

With the passage of the bill, now those who are 70 percent or more disabled as a result of their service are able to access the in-home day care at no cost at any of the 153 state veterans homes in the U.S.

“I am grateful to Congressman Zeldin for having the foresight to introduce this bill on behalf of all severely service-connected veterans who reside in state veterans homes across the country,” Vietnam veteran and patient of the Stony Brook facility Al Anderson said in a statement. “The bottom line is that this legislation will allow me to return home to my family while still having the ability to receive essential services through the Adult Day Health Care program. I can keep my chronic conditions in check and still enjoy the comforts of my own home.”

Fred Sganga, director of the Long Island State Veterans Home, also thanked Zeldin for his efforts in advancing the legislation.

“This legislation helps to restore a veteran’s freedom to remain an active member of their community even after succumbing to the perils of military service,” he said. “Congressman Zeldin never forgets the sacrifice of brave women and men who donned the uniform to protect the freedoms we all enjoy today.”

The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

“Our nation’s veterans and their dedicated families have sacrificed enough,” Zeldin said. “This bill will give veterans the care they have earned while providing families with the support and relief they need to help their veteran loved ones to lead a fulfilling life, while keeping families together and strong.”

Donates food to St. James' nonprofit after servicemen and women were displaced from Northport VA home

St. James residents William Mountzouros, Robert Cornicelli and Allan Fajardo, members of nonprofit Veterans for a More Responsive Government, deliver donated food to residents on the day of Super Bowl LII. Photo from Robert Cornicelli

On the day of the big game, Tommy O’Grady was the real patriot.

The owner of Miller Place’s Tuscany Gourmet Market donated food for 107 local veterans to make sure the servicemen and women could enjoy Super Bowl LII. Original plans had been to prepare a feast for 40 veterans at the VA Northport Beacon House Homeless Shelter through Veterans for a More Responsive Government, a nonprofit working to increase the public’s awareness of harassment and mistreatment of disabled U.S. veterans. Pipes burst at the Beacon House, and the veterans were split up and moved to nine different homes after making plans to watch the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots duke it out. When O’Grady was approached with the change of plans, he didn’t hesitate to alter his.

Tommy O’Grady, owner of Tuscany Gourmet Market in Miller Place, donated feasts for local veterans in need. File photo

“I have a gifted life, I’m doing well right now, and to see people who put their lives on the line and did their time in need, it’s not right,” O’Grady said. “For me, to give this to them, it’s the only way to say, ‘Thank you.’”

O’Grady had been connected with Robert Cornicelli, founder of Veterans for a More Responsive Government, through his childhood friend and Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle. The two grew up in Centereach together, and when LaValle was approached by Cornicelli asking first for help stretching his $540 into food for 40, he knew who to call.

“Tommy is the type of guy I’m almost afraid to talk in front of because God forbid you mention somebody is in need, he jumps right on it in two seconds,” the chairman said. “I was so embarrassed to call him back and tell him there’d been a change of plans, but when Robert went in to sit with him after the vet relocations he still said ‘I’ve got everything.’ They were stunned — they literally had tears in their eyes. They couldn’t believe how generous he was going to be. That’s a hell of a donation.”

Cornicelli, who served in the United States Army from 1986 to 1994 and retuned as a captain until his retirement in November 2017, has provided meals for veterans around the holidays for some time, but officially founded his nonprofit this year. A disabled veteran himself, he’s undergone four back surgeries, knee surgery and foot surgery, and said while his mission this time around was to make the party happen despite the setback, he said he hopes a mindfulness for the needs of veterans emerges.

“If everyone did what Tommy did, there’d be a lot fewer problems in this world, that’s for sure — certainly there wouldn’t be any world hunger.”

— John Jay LaValle

“The conditions at the Beacon House are horrible,” he said. “I took photos of moldy walls, ceilings, it’s disguising.”

O’Grady said he wanted to donate the not-so-standard London broil and balsamic chicken heroes, wings, salads and cookie trays so that the money Cornicelli had raised, matched with a donation from LaValle’s Republican National Committee funds, could go toward repairs.

“Robert is passionate about this, and I’m just backing him,” the Tuscany Market owner said. “We’re making it all happen for him. We want to raise awareness, so people can come together to get this home fixed.”

Cornicelli teamed up with fellow St. James residents William Mountzouros, a volunteer, and Allan Fajardo, a veteran, to drop off the food at the various veteran homes. Fajardo said he has been directly affected by Cornicelli. The Honduras native served in the Army from 1994 to 2016, and enlisted Cornicelli. He returned to the states a homeless veteran, and his friend opened his home to him, providing food and shelter. With the help of LaValle and former Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio, Fajardo earned part-time jobs within Smithtown and Brookhaven towns, eventually becoming an investigator for the Town of Islip.

“It’s thanks to those guys that I’m here,” Fajardo said. “When I saw the work [Cornicelli] was doing I immediately hopped on board. It’s a great feeling helping out brothers and sisters in need.”

Forty veterans were displaced after pipes burst at the VA Northport Beacon House Homeless Shelter. File photo

LaValle said seeing the groups of “good guys” come together has been mental therapy for him.

“It’s a tough world right now,” he said. “It’s a very hostile world at times. This is something that’s been really rewarding because you learn you may think you have it bad, and you may be whining about something, but it’s very true that there’s always someone out there who has it worse. Now I want to do more to help out.”

He pointed to Cornicelli and O’Grady as prime examples of model citizens.

“If everyone did what Tommy did, there’d be a lot fewer problems in this world, that’s for sure — certainly there wouldn’t be any world hunger,” he said, laughing. “And what Robert is doing is absolutely wonderful, he deserves a lot of credit.”

But on the day of the Super Bowl, Cornicelli called O’Grady the real hero, who donated much more than just heroes.

“I never met the guy in my life, and he tells me he’s taking care of the whole thing. It’s unbelievable,” Cornicelli said. “He broke everything down to the exact amount needed to feed the veterans at each location, and it’s an amazing feeling when these guys’ eyes are wide open, saying, “This is what we’re getting?” rather than bagged lunches. It’s refreshing to see guys helping out. Tommy, he’s one of the greatest patriots I’ve ever met.”

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen Pennington and Warrior Ranch Foundation Vice President Tony Simonetti spend time with Pennington’s horse Red. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

When Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro first stepped into the round pen with a horse at Warrior Ranch Foundation, her guard was up.

Castro, who served in Operation Enduring Freedom from 2002 to 2004, and admittedly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, was face to face with a 1,400-pound Friesian horse named BlackJack during a July demonstration by the Mount Sinai and Islip-based nonprofit, which pairs military and first-responder veterans with rescue horses in need of rehabilitation and training.

Marine Corps veteran StaceyAnn Castro bonds with
Vet therapy: Mount Sinai’s Warrior Ranch helps heal
her horse BlackJack. Photo from Warrior Ranch
Foundation

The tough-as-nails veteran was attempting to engage BlackJack in basic ground exercises, but the horse was not budging. Its guard was up too.

“I soon realized it was because I was terrified of him,” Castro later said. “When you’re with these horses they feel everything you’re feeling, even the emotions you think you’re hiding from everybody else. You can’t hide them from a horse.”

Castro relaxed, and as she calmed down, so did BlackJack. The horse began to lick and chew — a reflex associated with the animal’s release of stress.

“By the end of the session, I wound up with a friend,” she said of BlackJack. “With the horses, you have someone you’re actually bonding with in your own private, silent language. It’s beautiful.”

Officially incorporated in June 2016, the Warrior Ranch Foundation has helped reduce the stress levels and PTSD symptoms of more than a dozen veterans still recuperating from a wide range of conflicts — from the Korean War to Vietnam War to the war in Afghanistan — by teaching them how to groom, feed and train troubled horses. And much like the veterans, the nine residential horses, mostly retired race and show animals that have been trained their whole lives to compete and perform in high-stakes settings, are learning to adapt to a new, more relaxed world.

Cathie Doherty spends time with horse Cody.
Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“There’s a strong parallel between them and it’s amazing to see their emotional breakthroughs,” said Eileen Shanahan, the nonprofit’s founder and president. “While the race horses are trained to run, run, run, and as a result have emotional issues, the veterans are trained to go out there and do the best they can to protect and defend us. When they come back, they have to shut that off and that’s not so easy. We provide a safe haven for these humans and animals.”

Shanahan’s organization is the result of her lifelong love of country and horses. The Queens native, who shoots and produces television programs and commercials for a living, comes from a large military family with a father who served in the Marines, an uncle and brother in the Navy, nephews in the Army, as well as several first responders.

Although she mostly rode buses and subways growing up, Shanahan always admired horses from afar, seeing them as beautiful creatures.

When she got married and moved to East Quogue in the 1980s, she took up horseback riding and, 15 years ago, began adopting rescue horses and studying natural horsemanship — a variety of rapport-based horse training techniques.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

For nearly a decade, she dreamt of providing this outlet for local veterans and finally launched it with the help of longtime friends and equestrians specialists. While the group currently works out of two private barns, the future plan is to turn Warrior Ranch into a national organization.

“We want to eventually help hundreds of veterans and horses because it really works,” Shanahan said, explaining that interactions like Castro’s is very common at the ranch. “A lot of times when they come here, the veterans have their arms crossed, but by the end of the day, they have ear-to-ear grins. A lot of them break down and cry and it’s so powerful to watch.”

Tony Simonetti, Warrior Ranch’s vice president and top horse trainer, has made a career of rehabilitating emotionally distraught horses and re-interacting them with their human counterparts, resolving more than 500 extremely difficult horse cases for people across the country. When asked his most memorable veteran-horse interaction within the organization, he talked about Army Staff Sergeant Allen Pennington, Warrior Ranch’s first soldier to go through the program, and Red, a 4-year-old, retired race thoroughbred.

“[Allen’s] this big, rough and tough guy, and when the horse connected with him, I just saw all the stress he was holding inside bubble right up through his chest and then he just couldn’t keep himself composed,” Simonetti said. “He broke down and turned around and hugged that horse like it was his battle buddy. And I told him, ‘don’t feel bad about that. That’s what you’re here for.’”

During a testimonial on the Warrior Ranch website, Navy veteran Cathie Doherty, who was diagnosed with PTSD and put on medication for a number of years, said she was grateful to have attended a women veteran’s retreat at the nonprofit.

United States Army Staff Sgt. Allen
Pennington with horse Red. Photo
from Warrior Ranch Foundation

“It was really an amazing experience,” Doherty said. “I think it touched me much deeper than I imagined it would. I appreciated working with the horses and that I had to make a connection with them. I feel I was present in the moment. I didn’t care about my phone, I didn’t care what was going on around me. It was a beautiful experience for me.”

Castro said companionship with a horse might be more beneficial than a human’s.

“When you’re a veteran and you’re having a bad day, you don’t want to tell anybody, you don’t want to talk about it — you want to forget about it,” she said. “But I also don’t want to be alone and, so, when you’re there with the horse, and that horse knows what you’re going through and feeling, he feels it too. And because you love the horse and you don’t want the horse to feel that way, you’re going to try and make yourself feel better. It’s awe-inspiring.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who served four years in the Army, visited the ranch in Mount Sinai with his family Oct. 7 and saw firsthand the value of the nonprofit.

“It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see the positive effects that you’re having on these horses, and from these horses the veterans are getting love that they possibly have never experienced
before,” Zeldin said. “In a way, you’re directly coping with the symptoms of PTSD while also productively escaping the worst of it. It’s a great concept and I’d love to see Warrior Ranch grow into something a whole lot bigger than it already is.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, fifth from left, meets with members of the Warrior Ranch Foundation. Photo from Warrior Ranch Foundation

Huntington Station veteran Jerome Robinson, ninth from left, stands with the 2017 VetsBuild graduating class at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Veterans who have served our country are proving in Huntington Station they can also learn the skills to help build a better local community.

More than 20 veterans received their certification in construction at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13 after successfully passing through VetsBuild, a program offered by the nonprofit United Way of Long Island, that provides job training in green construction, facility maintenance and technology for veterans and their families.

“VetsBuild is not just about teaching home building skills and construction skills, it’s about building your lives,” said Craig Fligstein, vice president of community impact for United Way of LI. “It has accelerated positive changes in your life and allowed you to take a new turn in your career.”

Huntington Station resident Jerome Robinson, a 2017 VetsBuild graduate, said he served 11 years in the U.S. Army and as an officer in U.S. Army Reserves.

“We have served our country in different ways, but we are all looking for a way to move forward and find a new and exciting career path for ourselves,” Robinson said. “Personally, VetsBuild has opened up a number of doors.”

Robinson, 52, said he was previously employed doing overnight custodial work for Stony Brook University and struggled to make ends meet after being laid off in September. He learned about the free six-week construction program through United Veterans Beacon House, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary and permanent residences for U.S. Military veterans in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and started classes Oct. 2.

“I knew it was a chance to make myself more marketable to potential employers and find a career,” Robinson said.

VetsBuild will offer two to three training sessions a year for veterans depending on demand, according to Rick Wertheim, the senior vice president of housing and green initiatives for the United Way of LI. Those enrolled take daily classes in basic construction techniques and earn their Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-hour certification. Students then have the opportunity to train in specialized disciplines of the trade, from electrical to gas work, based on their interests, Wertheim said.

Robinson said he will be moving forward with GasPro, to gain skills in gas appliance installation and repairs. Others in his class will become electrical apprentices and at least one will be going back to college for an associates degree in renewable energy.

The skills the veterans have learned are used to build energy-smart homes throughout Long Island, including some for other veterans in need. The United Way of LI debuted the most recently completed VetsBuild home at 40 Depot Road in Huntington Station. It was specially commissioned by United Veterans Beacon house to become a residence for five veterans with special needs.

The more than 3,500-square-foot house was named the 2017 Grand Winner for Innovation in Affordable Homes by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its Housing Innovation Awards. The Depot Road home earned the recognition by being a “zero energy ready home” because it incorporates specialized innovative green features. These features render the projected annual energy cost at a netgain of $200 per year due to its capability to sell off excess energy produced by its photovoltaic solar panels. Other green technology featured in the home includes a solar thermal water heating system, internet-controlled heating and air conditioning, and 100 percent LED lighting.

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.”

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