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Veterans

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The Port Jefferson School District Armed Forces tribute. Photo from PJSD

The Port Jefferson School District will unveil its new Armed Forces tribute at a dedication ceremony with students May 30, at 10 a.m., at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. 

The tribute, created to express gratitude to those former students and staff members who have served in the armed forces, will salute military personnel with welcoming remarks from student leaders and school and local government officials. The Port Jefferson Middle School band will perform and students from Edna Louise Spear Elementary School will share poetry written especially for the occasion. 

“More than two dozen school staff and community members came together to form this committee with enthusiasm and camaraderie to honor those who served,” said Superintendent Paul Casciano. “The culmination of months of planning, fundraising and fellowship has resulted in a tribute of which our school community will be very proud.”

For those who cannot attend the event, a public recognition will be held Saturday, June 22, at
9:30 a.m.

Democrat challenger Jim Gaughran upset incumbent Carl Marcellino by winning the race for New York state's 5th Senate District. Photo by Alex Petroski

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) and the Senate Democratic majority passed a package of legislation that will expand veterans’ benefits and ease transition back to civilian life. These bills propose to provide veterans with a toll-free hotline on services and benefits, broaden property tax exemptions, make voting more accessible for military voters and implement additional employment benefits and academic credits. Passage of these bills comes in honor of the annual Fort Drum Day, which welcomes service members to the state Senate chamber. 

 “These bills affirm our commitment to providing military service members full resources and opportunities that they have earned,” Gaughran said. “It is our duty to support our active duty personnel during their time of service, and continue to support our veterans when they return home and transition back to civilian life.” 

The legislation advanced by the Senate Majority includes: 

● Active Duty Property Tax Exemptions: This bill, S.2930A, sponsored by the chair of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa), will provide qualified active duty personnel a property tax exemption. 

● Expanding Licensed Veterans Employment: This bill, S.2113, sponsored by Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Jamaica), will permit veterans who are licensed to practice a profession in another jurisdiction to practice their profession in New York State while their application to practice their profession in New York State is being processed. 

● Veterans Help and Crisis Line: This bill, S.2283A, sponsored by Sen. Sanders, will provide a toll-free telephone number for use as a help and crisis line to assist veterans. 

● Increase of Real Property Tax Exemption for Dual Veteran Households: This bill, S.2570, introduced by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), will increase the Alternative Veterans Real Property tax exemption when two qualifying veterans reside in the same household. 

● Veteran Academic Credit: This bill, S.2741A, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), will allow full-time undergraduate students enrolled at state-operated institutions to receive academic credit for their military service or training.       

● Expanding Veteran Credits on Civil Service Appointments: This bill, S.3647, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge), will amend Section 6 of Article 5 of the New York State constitution to eliminate the requirement that a veteran must have served in time of war, and allow for all individuals who have served in the armed forces to receive credits for civil service appointments and promotions.

● Military Voters in School District Elections: This bill, S.5184, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Port Chester), will provide military voters the opportunity to vote in school district elections by allowing them to return their absentee ballot by postal mail.

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

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to aid the Navy’s Agent Orange victims in a bill that also expands U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs home loan opportunities for veterans.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced the Flexible VA Loan Guarantee Act  as part of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 (H.R. 299). He’s urging the Senate for support. 

“This is the second time that the House has taken action to pass this legislation,” said Zeldin in a statement. “It is incredibly important for the Senate to do their part to help make this actually become law. I’m looking forward to that bill signing, and it is decades overdue.”

Suffolk County, according to Zeldin, is home to New York State’s largest veteran population. 

He expects the Flexible VA Loan Guarantee Act, if adopted, to eliminate the loan limit or “maximum guarantee amount” of a loan that the VA can guarantee for a veteran, providing the VA with the flexibility to determine the appropriate limit for individual veteran loans and expand access to home ownership in areas like Long Island where real estate values are higher.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act expands treatment coverage for those affected by Agent Orange from not only those who served on the ground, as currently stands, but to those service members who were affected while serving at sea.

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Craig McNabb with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Photo from Rich Acritelli

By Rich Acritelli

“Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend and neighbor.”

The above feelings were expressed by former President George H.W. Bush, who was a combat aviator during World War II in the Pacific and in Asia.  These national sentiments will be felt this week as people will begin to reflect on contributions that have been made by members of every armed service to protect American ideals. While this holiday was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, every year the United States pauses to honor all of the men and women who have militarily sacrificed for our country. This Monday, veterans from across this country will recall their own efforts of service at home and abroad.

The Cognitore family. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Joe Cognitore, now the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point,  grew up playing football and running track at Farmingdale High School.  Once he graduated in 1964, he went to Dakota Wesleyan University in South Dakota and was drafted into the army in 1969 towards the end of the Vietnam War. Cognitore is an extremely likable figure who has always been drawn toward leadership positions. This was no different in South Vietnam, as he was a platoon sergeant involved in heavy fighting against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army in Cambodia. For his efforts to care for his men and to distinguish himself in battle, the VFW commander was awarded the Bronze Star.

Once Cognitore returned home from South Vietnam, he wanted to get back to civilian life, to get a job and start a family. This longtime management figure for Coca-Cola was briefly a substitute social studies teacher in Longwood, where he enjoyed working with students and coaching them in sports. Cognitore is one of the many 2.5 million Vietnam veterans who were not warmly received by the American public once they arrived home. Unlike the World War II veterans who were thrown parades and given yellow ribbons, some of these veterans were cast aside by a government that wanted to forget this Cold War struggle.  For two decades, Cognitore coped with the war through the love of his wife Cathy and his two boys Joseph and Christopher. For 31 years, Cognitore was employed at Coca-Cola, where he was promoted to management positions.

It was not until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 that Cognitore became a major figure within the Rocky Point VFW post. Next to other veterans, Cognitore raised money for necessary materials that were sent to local residents who were deployed during the military campaigns of Desert Storm and Shield. The VFW commander  was also a key figure to raise funds for the athletic programs of Rocky Point High School when it faced austerity in the early 1990s. Since the moment that Hussein started the Gulf War, Cognitore has constantly been a vital fixture at this post to greatly help the communities of the North Shore.

It is the daily routine of Cognitore to attend meetings at government buildings in Hauppauge or Albany, or speak with political leaders in Washington D.C., addressing veterans affairs. While he is now in his 70s, Cognitore has shown no signs of slowing down and ensuring the men and women who have been deployed since the War on Terror began are adequately cared for by this country. For the last 12 years, Cognitore assisted the organization of a Wounded Warrior Golf Outing that has raised more than $200,000 for those local citizens who have returned home with traumatic injuries. His VFW also sponsored the creation of one of the largest 9/11 memorials in Suffolk County at the Diamond in the Pines Park in Coram. Most recently, Post 6249 was a sponsor to ensure that the Rocky Point High School Veterans Wall of Honor was properly funded to build this structure for past, present and future service members. 

In the summer, this veterans organization, spearheaded by Cognitore, has also been the driving force behind the Rocky Point concert series that has brought in talented musicians like Mike DelGiudice’s Billy Joel Big Shot band. And closer to home, his son Joseph has just been promoted to the rank of colonel and he graduated from the immensely difficult Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  He is a proud grandfather who has always wanted to help others.

John Fernandez. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Another local veteran who fondly looks at Memorial Day with extreme pride is Shoreham resident John Fernandez. This talented lacrosse player and wrestler graduated from Rocky Point High School in 1996 and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2001. When he was deciding which college to attend, Fernandez was influenced by the wartime involvement of his older family members to achieve a military education. On this date, Fernandez thinks about both of his grandfathers who fought during World War II in the Pacific and in Anzio, Italy.  

Fernandez left the academy in June 2001, and with Shoreham resident Gabriel “Buddy” Gengler, they drove to their first training station at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.  While both men were from the rival schools of Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River, they share a tremendous bond with each other. For more than a decade, they have tirelessly pushed for increased awareness to properly assist soldiers gravely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. They represent the newest generation of veterans who are motivated to ensure the strength of this nation at home and abroad.

It was at Fort Sill that Fernandez was instructed in the operation and firing of artillery guns. As he left West Point during a time of peace, this quickly changed on Sept. 11, 2001.  This young officer continued his development by being sent to Fort Irwin in California, where Fernandez participated in major war games. He learned the significance of logistics, supply, armor, infantry and artillery at these exercises. A short time later, he was ordered to Fort Knox where he instructed West Point cadets. As a lacrosse captain in high school and college, Fernandez is a natural-born leader who enjoyed guiding these prospective officers. In 2003, Fernandez was handpicked to be a platoon leader of an artillery battery that opened the primary attack into Iraq during the Second Gulf War.

Once this assault began, this talented lacrosse player who was known as “Spanish Lightning” headed north with thousands of other soldiers towards Baghdad. On April 3, 2003 as his artillery guns were preparing to shell and eventually take Hussein’s national airport near the capital, Fernandez was severely wounded. As he was cared for in the field by the medics, the very next day this vital objective was taken by American soldiers. While Fernandez was treated in Iraq and Kuwait, the war was over for him. His injuries were so severe that he eventually lost the complete use of the lower portion of his legs.  

Ever the optimist, Fernandez stated that he received a tremendous amount of attention from the moment that he was hit to the time that he spent at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. He was later transferred to a larger military medical facility in Bethesda, Maryland, which was better equipped to treat the increased number of casualties from the increased fighting. Once he received his prosthetic legs, Fernandez returned back to his sweetheart Kristi, rented a home in Rocky Point and began physical therapy.  Although he was terribly hurt in Iraq, Fernandez positively identified how fast he was discharged from this hospital and it fostered a faster return home to rehabilitate on his own.  The VFW under Cognitore wanted to properly ensure that Fernandez was thanked by this community. Outside of Post 6249, Cognitore successfully petitioned the Town of Brookhaven to rename the local street in the honor of Fernandez.  

The following year after he was hurt in Iraq, Fernandez’s daughter Madison was born in 2004. The vet went back to school at Dowling where he earned his master’s degree in education to teach mathematics. Along the way, John continued the process of walking again and his high school lacrosse coach Michael P. Bowler never doubted the drive of his former player.  

“John was one of the most determined and courageous athletes that was ever my privilege to coach to exceptional athlete, student and most importantly — a genuine good man,” Bowler said. 

In 2006, he was offered a position to work for the Wounded Warrior Project. It was at this charitable organization that Fernandez raised money and awareness to assist returning veterans who endured overwhelming medical difficulties. Armed with a big smile and a can-do attitude, Fernandez sat in meetings with major corporate leaders, politicians and owners of the National Football League. Just recently, he met President Donald Trump and Vice President Michael Pence.  Today, Fernandez has a family of five children, and enjoys coaching his kids, going on school trips and speaking about his experiences at his former high school and around the nation.  His eyes are always set to help all of those members of the armed forces who have endured combat-related hardships through their defense of the U.S.

The LaRusso boys, with Kevin second from left. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Another graduate of Rocky Point High School who also attended the West Point Military Academy was Kevin LoRusso. Like Fernandez, he was a talented athlete who excelled at soccer, wrestling and lacrosse. This student-athlete was known as K-Lo, and was well-liked for his calm presence during all athletic competitions. After a year at the prep school for this military academy, LoRusso entered West Point in 2005. Although he was also recruited by the Naval Academy to play lacrosse, this cadet chose Army, as he did not want to compete against his older brother Nicholas who was a goalie on this team. This dynamic athlete had won more than 100 wrestling matches in high school and was later determined to win a national championship at West Point.  He was one of many Rocky Point lacrosse players who attended this school and was later named captain for his leadership skills. While LoRusso was a competitive lacrosse player who loved this sport, his true responsibilities rested in being a devoted army officer.

LoRusso is one of four brothers, including Nicholas, Brian and Larry, who all attended West Point and played lacrosse. Three of them became artillery officers. The oldest brother Nicholas is a major who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat engineer. From 2010-2012, LoRusso was deployed to Afghanistan and to Germany, serving in the northeastern part of Afghanistan near Mazar-i-Sharif. This area is a unique combination of desert, mountains and flat plains. There, LoRusso encountered heavy fighting against the Taliban, which widely contested the strength of American forces in this region. As LoRusso is known for his calmness, he is sometimes reminded of the fighting when fireworks are unexpectedly detonated near him. This combat veteran took advantage of being sent to Germany where LoRusso and his buddies traveled to more than thirty nations.  He has the fond memories of being with his army friends as they visited France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Turkey.  On Memorial Day, LoRusso goes about his daily routines, but always in the back of his mind he thinks of the contributions that have been made by his family and friends who wore a uniform and sacrificed for this country.

Craig R. McNabb was an active kid who participated in football and baseball at Rocky Point High School. As he grew up with his friends and nearby family members, he was always eager to join the army. His father, Craig Sr., worked as a Suffolk County sheriff and he was a member of the Army National Guard that was ordered to Kuwait.   Like Fernandez, McNabb was one of the earliest soldiers into Iraq during the start of the second Gulf War. Ten years later and during his senior year, McNabb enlisted into the same type of Army National Guard unit and occupation that his father held as a combat military officer.

Directly after he graduated high school, McNabb finished his basic training and advanced individual training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. For two years, he was one of the younger combat military officers in his National Guard unit based out of Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. In 2016, McNabb was handpicked to be deployed to Afghanistan to carry out the sensitive security details of protecting American generals from every branch and foreign dignitaries. With his team, McNabb was responsible for protecting former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and James Mattis. McNabb was sent to a NATO military base in Kabul to carry out this vital mission to ensure the security of leaders that were defying the Taliban.

Craig McNabb in Afghanistan. Photo from Rich Acritelli

For about a year, McNabb ran more than 700 missions to ensure that these key figures were able to carry out their business within that perilous county. Currently, McNabb is a specialist/E-4 and he will soon be eligible to be promoted as a sergeant. This North Shore family shares a rare military bond that is not always seen. After the 9/11 attacks, McNabb was quickly sent into New York City to help the people who were suffering from the terrorist attack. He spent 15 months fighting in Iraq, where he traveled to every major Iraqi city, cleared homes that were occupied by insurgents, conducted patrols and trained police.  There is a unique family connection towards this military police job to assist American army forces in their mission to not only fight, but to provide a better life for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This capable young man is still serving in the National Guard and only a couple of months ago, McNabb became a Suffolk County correctional officer. While he is still a young man, McNabb has immensely grown through his experiences in the military, where he has matured into a seasoned veteran. He would like people to think about the importance of Memorial Day and thank those people who have fought in distant lands to ensure that our way of life is not threatened.  

Thank you to all of the veterans of the Armed Forces who continually make this nation proud of their unyielding spirit to always strengthen the resolve of the U.S.  As a North Shore community, we do not have to look far to see the many numerous examples of patriotism as we remember our military on Memorial Day 2019.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Lisa Cooper embraces her son Dante Lombardo at a recent reunion. Photo from Lisa Cooper

Mental health, particularly among service members, often seems to be a forgotten topic. One man and his Northport High School friends want to change that by riding bicycles this June from New York to California to raise awareness about mental health concerns among those who have served our nation’s military. 

Dante Lombardo in uniform. Photo from Lombardo

Dante Lombardo is a former U.S. Marine who was medically discharged due to his mental health. The East Northport resident,  who graduated from Northport High School in 2015, served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 2015 to 2019. He was trained as a digital wideband transmission equipment operator and as a field radio operator. 

Throughout Lombardo’s time in the Marine Reserves, he struggled with depression and anxiety, and like many others in a similar position, tried to “tough it out,” because that’s what he said the current military culture dictates. “Nearly anybody who has served can tell you that it is highly frowned upon to seek out mental health care,” he explained.

These issues came to a head in April of last year for Lombardo, when he attempted to take his own life. Thankfully, he was connected with a local behavioral health service, giving access to the counseling and the psychiatric care he needed. 

“Had it not been for these services, I do not believe I would have ever begun the path to wellness that I am on today,” said Lombardo.

Unfortunately, many service members suffer from similar mental health issues but do not seek out the help provided by the military, Lombardo said, in fear of being separated from duty due to their issues.

The statistics are staggering.

“We see 20 veterans each day take their own lives,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who created in 2005 a national network of professionals who provide free services to U.S. troops, veterans, their loved ones and their community. “People think that because the war is over, so are the challenges, but that’s not the case.” 

‘People think that because the war is over, so are the challenges, but that’s not the case.’

— Barbara Van Dahlen

As for Lombardo, he may no longer wear his Marine uniform, but he and his bike team are committed to fighting for their fellow service members. 

Lombardo, Brian Fabian and Anthony Rubin, all Northport High School graduates,  just earned their college degrees. Lombardo graduated from Clinton College, Fabian from SUNY Plattsburgh last weekend and Rubin from SUNY Buffalo. Now, they’re raising money in a GoFundMe campaign to pay for expenses that occur throughout the trip. Proceeds remaining will be donated to Give an Hour, which earns exceptional ratings as a charity on Guidestar. 

Give an Hour was chosen, the bike team stated, because it is an organization that is not affiliated with the Department of Defense and can provide mental health services to those in need, without running the risk of negative consequences from the service members chain of command. Lombardo said that the charity could provide service members the opportunity to get help and start healing before their issues become a crisis that demands the official attention of their command, or one that brings harm to themselves or others, while simultaneously defending them from the stigma of needing mental health care while serving.

“The need is huge,” Van Dahlen said in a phone interview. She is honored and grateful for Lombardo’s efforts to raise awareness and funds for the non-profit. 

Van Dahlen emphasizes the need for collaborative approach to address the issues. “We really can take care of the understandable mental health needs of those who serve and their families,” Van Dahlen said. “If we work together and coordinate services — we in the government, nonprofit and private sectors — our country can hopefully step up to serve those who have given so much.”

Northport residents Dante Lombardo, Brian Fabian and Anthony Rubin are riding bicycles cross-country to raise awareness about military mental health issues. Photo from Coast to Coast for Mental Health, Dante Lombardo’s supporters.

It’s a concept that Lombardo and his bike team understand. “This fight is not one person’s burden to bear, but instead one we face together.”

During the team’s travels cross-country, they plan to volunteer in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, elderly care homes and other places that offer opportunities to give back. Their journey aims to seek out and hear the testimonies of veterans nationwide so their stories may be heard. 

The bike team has created a Facebook group page, Coast-to-Coast for Mental Health, which will be updated to post stories and experiences of the team, as well as testimonies of those who have suffered. This trip is a humanitarian interactive wellness journey as seen through three young Long Island men who are raising awareness for those who suffer with mental health issues all too often in silence. 

Lombardo encourages people to share the funding page, the Facebook page, as well as sharing their own stories. His message to the public, “We’ll be seeing you on the trail.”

The Times of Huntington will provide updates of the team’s journey in upcoming issues.

The GoFundMe page, Give an Hour website and an overview of the charity from Charity Navigator  can be found at: 

GoFundMe: www.gofundme.com/tmt6z-coast-to-coast-for-mental-health

Give an Hour: www.giveanhour.org

Charity Navigator: www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=17415

Town of Smithtown officials and St. James veterans give their respects at the rededication of the Vietnam War memorial Nov. 21, 2018. File Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

After a successful statewide lobbying campaign resulting in the restoration of nearly $4 million in funding for a veterans peer support program some have called vital, and given an additional $300,000 for expansion, New York State officials introduced bipartisan legislation April 22 to expand the program nationally. 

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act (H.R.1749), which would expand the peer-to-peer support program nationally for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological and physical traumas. The Dwyer bill was co-sponsored by NYS Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Peter King (R-Seaford) and others. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well.”

— Joe Cognitore

“Expanding nationally the Dwyer program, which is currently operating in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, eventually to all states in the U.S., will ensure that every veteran can have access to a peer-to-peer support group,” Zeldin said in a statement. “With the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] reporting that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide, this national expansion is long overdue.”

This is the second time Zeldin has introduced legislation to expand the program nationally. Two years ago, the congressman proposed a bill that would authorize the VA to support veteran support programs modeled after the Dwyer project with federal grants. 

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, was in Albany with other veterans groups in March urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the Dwyer program, and he said the new bill is a great opportunity to expand these resources to other veterans throughout
the country. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well,” he said.

The main goal of the Dwyer project, which is currently overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

The commander of the VFW Post is glad the funds were restored as part of the executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and in April stopped by the office of state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) to thank him for his support for the Dwyer program. The veteran group presented the senator with a framed picture of the famous photograph of Dwyer helping an ailing Iraqi child. 

“I support anyone who supports veterans, it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat,” Cognitore said. “It is gratifying that we were able to do that, and we have officials that are doing the right thing.”

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008.

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249, dedicates much of his time to helping veterans and his local community. File photo

County and state officials plan on embarking on a statewide campaign to advocate for the restoration of funds for a veterans peer support program some have called vital. 

At a press conference March 15 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) alongside state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) urged the state Legislature to restore funding for the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, after the proposed executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included no funding for the project.  

“It is our profound duty to serve our veterans both at home and abroad,” Bellone said. “Often times when our veterans return home they carry scars with them. The Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project has a proven track record of assisting our veterans regain their lives and I urge Albany to reverse course immediately and fund this vital program.”

The project, which is overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, aims to serve veterans, active duty members, reserve and National Guard troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other adjustment conditions. One of the program goals is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

Brooks, chairman of the state’s Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, spoke on the challenges many veterans face when they come home and the good the program does. 

“These are heroes helping heroes,” the state senator said. “This is a program that enables veterans with knowledge and understanding of issues like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression and substance abuse to meet with and counsel veterans who are suffering from one, or several, of these afflictions as a result of their service to our country.”

The senator stressed the urgent need for this program and others like it. 

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008. Last year, 23 counties across the state received $3.735 million in project funding.   

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, knows the program works and echoed Senator Brooks’ sentiments that programs like the Dwyer project are necessary and vital for veterans. 

“It’s veterans to veterans,” he said. “Mental health is an important issue.”

Cognitore said on a grassroot level the program works, and he was disappointed about the proposed funding cuts. 

“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue — it’s a bipartisan one,” he said. “We are all in the foxhole.”       

As chair for the VFW Department of New York Legislative Committee and a member of the VFW National Legislative Committee, Cognitore was in Albany lobbying earlier this month with other veterans groups urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the program. This year Suffolk County only received a $185,000 share of the money in the state budget.  

Previously, when the project had its full funds there were plans on expanding the program further into New York state, in addition to the already 23 participating counties. Similarly, two years ago, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced legislation to expand the Dwyer program to the national level.  

Cognitore mentioned if he had another chance to speak with Cuomo and other lawmakers he would tell them not to slash the budget of a program without due diligence and background research. 

“It’d be one thing if this program wasn’t working but that’s not the case here — it works,” he said. “Put yourself in our boots, come visit us and see how the program runs.” 

Cognitore hopes lawmakers in Albany reverse course and restore funds to the program. He said they are fortunate to have county and state officials on their side who are committed to helping veterans. 

Bellone plans on traveling to the Hudson Valley and Western New York over the course of the next few weeks to build a coalition of state and local officials on the issue of restoring funding. 

Beginning in 2012, more than 10,000 veterans have participated in the Joseph P. Dwyer program countywide. Suffolk County is home to the largest veterans population in New York state.

An effort spearheaded by veteran service organizations and Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) is nearing its fundraising goal to give nation’s newest veterans the respect they’ve earned.

The effort, dubbed Operation Remember, which looks to update four existing war memorials located in Port Jefferson, Setauket and Stony Brook to commemorate the sacrifices made by the latest generations of America’s service members, has been decisive thanks to the support of the community, according to a press release from Hahn’s office. To date, $14,400 of the estimated $25,000 has been received by the Veterans Memorial Fund established through a partnership between the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts located in Setauket, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson Station, the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University and Hahn. Organizers are asking for a final push in donations to complete the mission of expanding these sites to honor those who served during the Cold War, the Gulf wars and the Global War on Terror by this Memorial Day.

“Support for this effort has been incredible,” Hahn said. “In only a few months we have raised more than half of what is needed to make this lasting tribute to the sacrifices of our local heroes a reality. Our goal is to have work completed by Memorial Day, a day on which we pause to remember and reflect upon the lives of those who have given theirs in order for us to freely live ours. Raising the remaining $10,600 needed in the next few weeks will ensure the work will be complete in time for this solemn day.”

Among those who have already answered the call are Purple Heart sponsors Realty Three LLC/Ridgeway Plaza LLC and Bruce Acker. Ardolino Group Realty Connect USA and Friends of Kara Hahn became Meritorious Service Medal sponsors, while Burner Law Group, P.C. earned the Commendation Medal and Moose Lodge 1379 of Port Jefferson donated at the Recognition Ribbon level. Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP also committed to a $500 sponsorship.

“Our community is very patriotic,” said Carlton “Hub” Edwards, commander of Post 1766 in Setauket. “I am certain the community will step up to help fund this Veterans Memorial Project to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice and have yet to be fully acknowledged.”

Last fall, memorial coalition members joined together to ensure veterans of our nation’s more recent wars would receive the recognition they have earned on those foreign battlefronts back here on the homefront. The partnership, through its Veterans Memorial Fund, hopes to update the memorials to include new plaques and monument stones to be inscribed with the names of wars since Vietnam at memorials located in Stony Brook Village, on the Setauket Village Green, at the Setauket Veterans Memorial Park and along the Port Jefferson harbor front.

“This project is in recognition of all veterans who served in all wars,” said Bill Wolf, commander, American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 in Port Jefferson.

“For those who served and gave so much, we Americans can only say ‘thank you,’” said Jack Gozdziewski, member of American Legion Post 432 and VFW Post 3054. “Through our local veterans memorials our communities show our love of country and respect to those who gave all. America’s freedom can never be taken for granted, veterans can never be forgotten.”

“The memorial is important lest we forget the sacrifices made and what we fought for,” said Tim Still, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3054 in East Setauket.

Those wishing to donate, can make checks payable to and mail to Veterans Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 986, Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776.

Once the fundraising goal has been met, organizers will contract with a local stonemason to update the monuments with individual designs for each of the four memorials.

“Installation cannot take place until our fundraising is complete, and the monuments are paid for in full,” Hahn said. “We’d like to meet our fundraising goals soon, with the hopes of having the monuments installed and completed for Memorial Day.”

For more information about Operation Remember and sponsorship opportunities still available, visit www.americanlegionwilsonritchpost432.org/index.php?id=101.

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By Rich Acritelli

The sounds of the Rocky Point student’s cheers rippled throughout the school’s gymnasium Feb. 9. They packed every inch of the stands, and some screamed their encouragement while standing toward the sides of the gym, all to watch their high school faculty and teachers duke it out for the first Swoopin’-N-Hoopin’ basketball game. 

Beyond the roars and excitement of watching educators layup and hurl attempted 3-pointers, the event and its participants helped raise over $3,500 for a local veterans group. It all came thanks to the idea of one longtime Rocky Point teacher who was wishing to give back to the community.

Since the moment he entered Rocky Point High School as a social studies teacher in 1986, Brooke R. Bonomi has always lived up to the words of service to helping this North Shore school district.  Armed with a contagious smile, a can-do attitude and a drive to excel at every task, this longtime educator organized one of the biggest events that Rocky Point High School has seen in some time. Bonomi mobilized almost every part of this school to lead a Wounded Warriors basketball game Feb. 8 to raise money for Rocky Point VFW Post 6249’s efforts to help veterans who have been physically devastated from the war on terror.

As the fans entered the hallway toward the gym, they were greeted by countless baskets of assorted prizes collected by a multitude of school clubs, items that were later won by the fans through a massive raffle that raised $3,500 to assist the needs of the local VFW’s wounded warriors initiatives. 

“This night of fun should be a tradition that is permanently carried on at our school.”

— Julia Salino

Even as Bonomi ran this entire function, he also played basketball with his fellow staff members that were comprised of four teams. Each squad of teachers, administrators, aides, security and even grounds keepers were coached by the students who drafted and traded these players in the days leading up to the game. Bonomi even enlisted the help of Athletic Director Charles Delargy who served as the basketball commissioner for this game.  During the draft that was held in the school’s auditorium, Delargy read the top selections as main rules interpreter for this athletic event, and guidance counselor Michael Conlon helped pick and play music that was tailored toward each participant.

Bonomi planned this fundraiser for months with his Be a Nicer Neighbor Club. Support was also provided by school athletes, the technology club, the school band as well as staff and community members to help ensure that this basketball game was a smooth success.  

As he approaches the end of his career, Bonomi has always been motivated to get the students, teachers and administrators involved in causes to benefit the community and beyond. For weeks, the students saw Bonomi’s presence in the main hallway selling tickets, dribbling a basketball and playing music to promote this game. A constant presence next to him were the brilliant smiles of fellow teachers Dan Capell, Jenessa Eilers, Gina Grillo and Carly Tribby who were helping bring attention to this event.

VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore served as the grand marshal for the game. The veteran served in South Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War where he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is constantly reminded of this conflict through injuries that he had sustained overseas. Cognitore marveled at the ability of Bonomi to perform “a magnificent job in utilizing all ages of teachers to participate in front of a packed house of fans.” 

Standing next to the military color guard that posted the flag within the center of the gymnasium was senior Joshua Vogel who performed the national anthem.

From the beginning of this project, Bonomi wanted the kids to accept ownership in putting the game together. Rocky Point senior Trey Miller, a skilled basketball and baseball player, was thrilled to support this function.

“I love helping Bonomi and putting our minds together to make unique ideas happen for our school,” Miller said. “This was most importantly a patriotic program that showed respect to our local veterans that deserve to be recognized for their services to this nation.”  

All week and during the course of the game, the well-known creativity of Bonomi was always present through player nick names.  These included library media specialist Jessica Schnall’s “Barkley,” Assistant Principal John “The Total Eclipse” Hart, social studies teacher John “The Bullet Train” Mauceri, English teacher Kevin the “Ginga Ninja” Parker, and the Most Valuable Player for this evening, math teacher Jay “Rubber Band Man” Rand.

Bonomi also enlisted the aid of the technology club, which played music and performed colorful commentary over the offensive and defensive prowess of these teams. While the players took a break during halftime, members of the band played music for the packed house of fans. Resembling a New York Knicks or Islanders game, the younger teachers ran along the stands throwing balled up Swoopen’-N-Hoopin’ T-shirts to the roaring fans. Through all of these activities, Bonomi had a radiant smile on his face as he watched a charitable and patriotic night come together. 

“Spirit and pride was abound with a packed house and I certainly appreciate the passion and energy Mr. Bonomi puts forth to create a positive climate and culture for our student body.”

— Susann Crossan

High school senior Julia Salino works closely with Bonomi’s club and she said she hopes the event continues into the future.

“This night of fun should be a tradition that is permanently carried on at our school,” she said.

Since the moment that he started teaching, coaching and being a club adviser decades ago, Bonomi has long preached the importance of helping others. High School Principal Susan Crossan, who has known this educator for many years, said she was extremely pleased about the game

“Spirit and pride was abound with a packed house and I certainly appreciate the passion and energy Mr. Bonomi puts forth to create a positive climate and culture for our student body,” the principal said. 

One of the most important goals Bonomi showed to the school’s younger teachers was the significance of donating time and energy into the kids and community even well after the final period of the day rings. Over the last 33 years, Bonomi’s presence has represented the following words of President Theodore Roosevelt who wrote: “…(the figure) who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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High school student Jillian Lawler's rendering of the armed forces tribute to be constructed in front of the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. Picture courtesy of Port Jefferson School District.

The Port Jefferson School District has announced the creation of an armed forces Tribute to be dedicated on May 30.

The tribute will recognize former Port Jefferson School District students and staff who served in the armed forces.

A brick campaign is currently underway at $100 for each individual brick to be set at the selected tribute site in front of Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. They will be placed on the planned “court of courage” and “path of honor” that will surround the planned tribute. Each purchased brick will be engraved with a message to honor past and current service members, family members, community members or friends, selected by the person donating.

“The Port Jefferson School District community has really embraced this project,” said Superintendent Paul Casciano, who helped spearhead the initiative.

Some of that initial support comes from a New Year’s Day fundraiser held at Tara Inn that raised $7,650. A boulder which will serve as the centerpiece of the tribute that was transported to the site by Sheep Pasture Tree and Nursery Supply.

“We are grateful to Sheep Pasture and to Tara Inn and their contributors — their generosity has gotten this endeavor off to a successful start,” Casciano said.

Earl L. Vandermeulen High School senior Jillian Lawler also took part in the initial planning by creating a rendering of the proposed site.

The brick fundraising campaign will run until March 1 and a dedication ceremony will be held on Thursday, May 30.Those interested in purchasing a brick must fill out a fundraising flyer available at the district’s website. All money raised will help fund the building of the tribute. Those interested can also contact Kathy Hanley in the superintendent’s office at 631-791-4221 with any questions.