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Veterans

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.

Northport VA Medical Center. File photo

The director of Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center has submitted his resignation, leaving the facility after a year at the helm.

Scott Guermonprez’s last day leading the Northport VA will be July 14 as he intends to retire after more than 30 years of military and federal service.

“Having the opportunity to come back to Long Island and my home, Northport, as a capstone assignment is a wonderful and awesome way to finalize my career,” Guermonprez said.

Having the opportunity to come back to Long Island and my home, Northport, as a capstone assignment is a wonderful and awesome way to finalize my career.”
– Scott Guermonprez

The director said this is effectively his second retirement from service. Guermonprez said he built his career in the military health  care system serving as an administrator there for 24 years, before initially filing for retirement. At the last minute, he transferred to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to begin serving other veterans. Guermonprez worked for three years at Albany VA Medical Center before coming to Long Island.

“We’ve had a great time with health care professionally in Albany and Northport leading change, positive change we needed to make happen,” he said. “I am excitedly looking forward to future opportunities with family.”

Guermonprez said he believes he is leaving Northport’s facilities in better condition than when he arrived, claiming he’s improved the timely access to health care for veterans by making same-day appointments available for primary care and adding an increased capacity for telehealth, where elderly veterans can now use technology to talk and consult with their physicians from the comfort of their home. 

Dr. Cathy Cruise, recently promoted to permanent chief of staff at Northport VA, will step up to serve as the acting director while a national search is conducted to find Guermonprez’s successor.

“I can say I’m very happy to serve in the acting director position for as long as it takes; it’s an honor,” said Cruise, a Huntington native. “I’ve grew up here and developed my love of medicine here.”

Cruise has worked at the Northport center for approximately two years but has spent more than 23 years serving with the VA. She will take the reins of the $15 million in capital projects currently underway at the facility and, possibly, the long-awaited demolition of two buildings Guermonprez has focused on, for which permits were received and authorized July 5.

“I wish I could be here for it, but I’ve asked Dr. Cruise to save a brick for me,” he said.

The Blanco family stands at the newly dedicated "L. Cpl. Michael E. Blanco" section of Wichard Boulevard in Commack. Photo from Ron Pacchiana

By Kyle Barr

A Commack street now bears the name of a U.S. Marine who lost his life in 2010 from the battle against post-traumatic stress disorder.

Town of Smithtown officials, local veteran groups and the Blanco family gathered July 1 on Wichard Boulevard in Commack to watch the unveiling of the sign dedicating a portion of roadway in memory of Lance Corporal Michael E. Blanco. It was erected on the street where Blanco grew up.

“It means to us that every time someone looks at that sign, they’ll remember however Michael touched their lives,” Blanco’s sister, Nicole Blanco-Abbate, said.

Smithtown Town officials, Suffolk County elected officials and member of the Blanco family at the July 1 ceremony. Photo from Ron Pacchiana

Those who knew Blanco recalled him as a selfless man who wouldn’t hesitate to do things for others. Blanco’s father, Bruce, remembered how when his son attended high school the young man asked for more lunch money, commenting that he was “a growing boy.” Later, he learned Blanco was giving that extra money anonymously to the kids who couldn’t afford lunch.

“My son was always known as the protector – he was the one who came out of nowhere to help people,” Blanco’s father said. “I get constant phone calls from his friends of what he’s done to help them. He stood up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves.”

The Blanco family said they were humbled when nearly 100 people showed up to the ceremony at the intersection of Wichard Boulevard and Philson Court in support including including Suffolk County officials, members of the American Legion Ladies Post 1244, Smithtown and Nesconset Fire Departments, AM Vets, the Patriot Guard Riders, Missing in America Project, Veterans for Freedom, American Legion riders and American Legion Auxiliary Greenlawn Chapter 1244.

“There were so many people there, from small kids all the way to veterans in their 70s and 80s,” Suffolk County Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said. “This type of dedication leads to more acceptance. It shows there has to be something done about soldiers with PTSD.”

In September 2017, the U.S. Office of Veteran Affairs released a report on suicides amongst veterans of the armed services based on 55 million record dating from 1979  to 2014. It found that an average of 20 veterans die from suicide every day. PTSD is the leading cause of death for veterans and military service members.

Several veterans groups attended the July 1 ceremony in honor of Michael Blanco. Photo from Ron Pacchiana

“He still was a soldier – he still was a veteran,” Blanco’s mother, Donna, said. “With this sign, we are bringing awareness to the 22 veterans who die every day from PTSD.”

Both of Blanco’s parents agreed that this dedication does much to help the community remember their son and the struggles he faced.

“The worst fear a mother has when a son dies is that he won’t be remembered,” Blanco’s mother said. “Now I know my son will forever be memorialized and he will always be remembered.“

Bruce Blanco said he became involved the American Legion Riders Chapter 1244 after his son passed away, and he is now leading them as their president. Since then, the riders have been involved in many veterans memorials and events all around the Huntington and Smithtown areas. The chapter also participates in the Missing in America Project that tries to give proper military funerals to those veterans who died without family or who remain unremembered.

“One of the worst things for anyone is to ever be forgotten,” Blanco’s father said. “Everything throughout Smithtown is a remembrance for us, and this sign just adds to onto it.”

Tom Lambui leads a dog through an obstacle course designed to distract at the Paws of War Nesconset facility. Photo by Kyle Barr

Those servicemen and women who have had their dog trained at the Nesconset nonprofit Paws of War know the best companion to have when past trauma returns, is a trained service dog at their side.

“You can’t imagine how much dogs make an impact on your life,” said Frank James, a retired police officer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

James is training his dog Bailey for service dog certification through Paws of War, an organization which helps provide service dogs and train them for retired service members. The former police officer said having a service dog has helped him deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after being at the scene of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Russell Keyser sits with his service dog, Artemis. Photo by Kyle Barr

“She’s helped significantly, really significantly,” he said.

For the last five years, Paws of War has provided service dogs and emotional support dogs along with the necessary training to veterans of all stripes, from those in the armed services to former cops and emergency responders. Robert Misseri, a co-founder of Paws of War, said the nonprofit provides the training for service members entirely free of charge.

“If they are approved, we train their dog at the very least, with all behavioral training to work toward a service animal for their needs,” Misseri said.

U.S. Army veteran Russell Keyzer, of Ronkonkoma, said he got his service dog,  Artemis, through Paws of War three years ago. Artemis has helped Keyzer get through the most difficult parts of his post-military life, including managing the effects of his PTSD.

“I was in really, really bad shape when I got her.” he said. “I got her at two months old, and I started training right away. Things were a lot more therapeutic on my end — to get back to that normal life.”

Keyzer said Artemis helped save him during a difficult situation at a June 22 Foreigner concert at Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater. When the lights flashed and the music cut through the noise of the
audience, Keyzer said he started to tense up and his PTSD that has haunted him since he left the Army, started to creep into his head. He knew he couldn’t be there anymore.

Paws of War trains service dogs, like Phoenix, for veterans, former law enforcement and first responders. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Get me the (expletive) out of here,” Keyzer recalled saying to Artemis.

With his hand wrapped around the dog’s leash, Artemis helped guide the distraught veteran through the crowd, away from the noise and the lights, until they reached emergency medical personnel.

Suffolk County officials have come to recognize Paws of War and the work it does. On July 2, Suffolk Sheriff  Errol Toulon Jr. (D) announced a 2-year-old black Labrador named Rocky to be trained by inmate Jermaine, a veteran himself diagnosed with PTSD who is currently serving time at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. Jermaine will train the dog twice a week for eight weeks, before Rocky will be given to Babylon resident Harry Stolberg, a single father and Marine Corps veteran who also has PTSD.

Those interested can watch Rocky’s training live online at the website www.suffolksheriff.com with the first broadcast scheduled for July 4.

Misseri said that so many veterans have become interested in the program that the organization needs to move into a larger space. They have already picked one out — a storefront located in the same Nesconset Plaza shopping center on Smithtown Boulevard as their current home. Misseri said the new location would provide the organization with hundreds more square feet of space.

Mark Hayward works on training his service dog, Phoenix, at VetDogs in Nesconset. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We could really serve so many more veterans,” Misseri said. “There’s plenty of people who want to go into a class with our current space, but we can only take 10 people per lesson — in this new space we could take 30.”

Paws of War is entirely funded by donations and spends most of its money paying for dog trainers. It is seeking out volunteer plumbers, painters, electricians, carpenters, floor specialists and sign makers to help renovate the new shop.

In the meantime, veterans find hope for the future in the form of their dogs. Mark Hayward, an Army veteran who participated in Operation Desert Storm, walked his dog, Phoenix, through obstacles designed to
distract her. Every time she went through the course without turning her head, Hayward would look down and smile at her.

“It’s between night and day from before I got her in 2016 and now,” he said. “She helps me get out and do things a lot more. I named her Phoenix because, like they say, she is helping me rise from the ashes.”

Those veterans who are interested in obtaining a service dog, or individuals willing to volunteer their assistance in the organization’s upcoming move, can contact Paws of War at at 631-367-7297 or online at www.pawsofwar.org.

Hundreds of St. James residents wore red, white and blue this Memorial Day to pay solemn remembrance to those who have served our country.

St. James held its annual Memorial Day parade and remembrance ceremony May 28. The parade stepped off from Woodlawn and Lake avenues at 10 a.m. featuring local marching bands, fire departments and both Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.

The community gathered for a wreath-laying ceremony outside Saint James Elementary School. Each veterans group laid a wreath to honor its members, before the names of each member of the services who had passed away in the last year was read while a bell was rung.

Hundreds of Northport residents lined the village streets to honor those who serve our country and have
made the ultimate sacrifice this Memorial Day.

Northport held is annual Memorial Day parade and services May 28, led and organized by Northport American Legion Post 694. The parade stepped off at 10 a.m. from Laurel Avenue School.  As the parade wound its way into the village, members of the American Legion stopped at various memorials throughout town to lay wreaths to honor veterans. One of the wreaths laid was in memory of U.S. airman Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, also a New York City and Commack firefighter, who died in the line of duty March 15.

Raguso was one of seven members of New York’s 106th rescue unit killed in the line-of-duty March 15 when a H-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed while carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to the United States Department of Defense.

Plan calls for the hiring of 40 additional engineers and police department staff

A temporary heating and air conditioning unit installed at the homeless shelter of Northport VA medical center. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The new leadership at the reigns of the 90-year-old Northport VA Medical Center has unveiled a three-year plan aimed at making $21 million in repairs to address critical infrastructural and staffing concerns.

Director Scott Guermonprez said since taking up the position in June 2017, he has drafted together a plan that looks to address the out-of-date utilities systems and crumbling buildings that led to the closure of its homeless veterans housing in January, and a brief shutdown of its operating rooms in February.

““We have to figure out how we focus on the resources we have and use them as quickly and prudently as possible.”
– Scott Guermonprez

“There was a facility condition assessment done last year that came out that said if we were to try to fully rehabilitate the entire campus it would cost more than $450 million, or to try to build a new one would cost more than $1 billion,” Guermonprez said. “We have to figure out how we focus on the resources we have and use them as quickly and prudently as possible.”

There are approximately $7 million in projects getting underway this year, according to the director, which includes replacing four of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning units of the main medical center as well as a new roof.

The VA director said they had also received approximately $1.1 million to renovate the homeless veterans shelter, run by the nonprofit Beacon House, with new ductwork and an electronically controlled heating and cooling system. The work is expected to be completed by the end of the summer, according to Guermonprez.

The director said the three-year plan also calls for hiring 40 additional engineering and trade staff to oversee maintenance and upkeep of the 71-building campus under its new Chief Engineer Oscar Prue.

“[Prue] has been very successful in overseeing a large number of projects over multiple years and multiple locations,” Guermonprez said, noting he’s worked on VA medical centers in Albany and Syracuse.

“While this VA has plenty of work ahead of them, I am confident that they have a plan and are moving in the right direction…”
– Tom Suozzi

The first major project Prue is expected to tackle is the demolition of long-abandoned Buildings 1 and 2 which housed the facility’s original hospital, standing opposite the current medical center.

“It’s an eyesore,” the director said. “One of the biggest complaints we’ve had with Northport is insufficient parking. When it was built nearly 40 years ago, the intent was to demolish those buildings. It never happened.”

He anticipates the Department of Veterans Affairs will give him clearance to move forward shortly, with demolition tentatively scheduled to start in the late fall. These two of the 428 buildings nationwide the Veterans Administration has plans to demolish or repurpose. The space cleared will be converted to additional parking space for the medical center, allowing a few hundred spaces to be added.

“We want to add valet parking,” Guermonprez said. “We have the largest number of veterans over 80 years old in the New York-New Jersey health care system. We want to make it easier for them.”

Adding more parking and upgrading the heating and cooling systems will allow Northport VA to consolidate its medical treatment services into the medical center. Currently some programs like the outpatient mental health services and opthamology are in outlying buildings.

“[W]e are expanding police services given the unfortunate incidents occurring across the nation with shootings as we want to keep our veterans safe.
– Colleen Luckner

“While this VA has plenty of work ahead of them, I am confident that they have a plan and are moving in the right direction to ultimately upgrade and restore these facilities so that they can properly serve and honor our veterans here and in the community,” Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said after touring the VA facility with the director in late April.

Other key components of the VA’s three-year plan include replacing the campus’s steam vents and expanding its security force to deal with modern threats, said Colleen Luckner, associate director of Northport VA.

“In addition to the construction projects, we are expanding police services given the unfortunate incidents occurring across the nation with shootings as we want to keep our veterans safe,” Luckner said.

The Northport VA will be hiring on additional staff for its police department as well as implementing new systems such as additional cameras, panic alarms and other such measures.
Later this year, the Northport VA expects to celebrate the grand opening of expansion of its Riverhead outpatient clinic to include more physical therapy space and hearing services in July, before adding physical therapy, occupational therapy and more services to its Patchogue location.

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.

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