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VFW Post 6249

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The Rocky Point High School History Honors Society stand with Joe Cognitore along with a plaque commemorating the flag that now flies over the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Just recently, Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point spoke to the Rocky Point High School History Honors Society. He addressed the tragic attacks of 9/11, 18 years ago and an uncovered part of ground zero that was presented to this North Shore area.  

Cognitore recalled a past beautiful fall day, the afternoon of Oct. 4, when the Rocky Point school district held a major patriotic and remembrance ceremony only weeks after the terror attacks. It was the goal of this school district to remember and honor all of those national and local people that were impacted by these attacks. As Americans watched the rescue and recovery efforts in the city, they were reminded of a new war that was waged against the Taliban and al-Qaida some 19 days after Manhattan was hit by supporters of terrorism.  Those days saw a tremendous burden weighing on the minds of citizens, and this program presented a united front to support all of our Americans at home and abroad.

Local residents filled the bleachers of Rocky Point High School and in front of them was a Town of Brookhaven concert mobile. The VFW post marched in the colors and presented our flag to a crowd that was overcome with the memory of the four graduates that were killed from these attacks. The sounds of “God Bless America,” the armed forces music and “America the Beautiful” were played to the crowd. Veterans were invited to stand to represent different branches of the armed services that were all on alert during the earliest moments of the War on Terror. There were all of the local, state and federal government representatives, World War II veterans, and Boy Scouts that were all present on this day to present a dynamic unity.

This camaraderie resembled the same feelings that Americans felt when the Japanese  attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.  Flags were flown all over the nation and people stuck bumper stickers on their cars in support of the residents of New York City. People wrapped yellow ribbons around trees for those soldiers who going to be deployed. Cognitore and the other organizers of that event decided on a unique angle to demonstrate patriotism. Calverton-based Sky Dive Long Island planned to make a jump over the skies of this school with a large flag that would be seen well above the heads of the people. Only a few weeks before this jump, it was discovered under the debris of Lower Manhattan. It was originally flown outside of the World Trade Center and it was located by a volunteer recovery worker.

The plane took off from Calverton with jumpers Curt Kellinger, a Port Authority police officer and Ray Maynard. The crew made a memorable landing with a tattered yet historic flag that landed on the Rocky Point football field. Once the flag made it to the ground, it was presented to a representative of the Port Authority and brought back to the city. That year, it was flown over Yankee Stadium during the World Series, at Super Bowl XXXVI and at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Even as this flag was scarred from the attacks of 9/11, it showed the resilience of our country to quickly rebound and rebuild.  The flag that once was displayed at Post 6249 has a permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Today, millions of people have visited this well-known museum and they can see a flag that has strong roots of patriotism and remembrance to this North Shore community.

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

The Rocky Point High School History Honors Society contributed to this story.

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Thousands gathered for the last summer concert Aug. 27., but the chamber was denied entry to promote Photo by Greg Catalano

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and legislative challenger Gary Pollakusky have crossed swords over the final summer concert in Rocky Point Aug. 27.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker is running against Republican Gary Pollakusky to represent the 6th District. Photos by Alex Petroski

Members of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce said they were restricted from entering the concert venue, featuring Mike DelGuidice and Big Shot, to promote the chamber and their own businesses. Pollakusky is the executive director of the chamber, which was established last year.

Chamber members took to local Facebook groups to decry how they were allegedly treated, saying they were turned away by aides from Anker’s office. In a video posted to the chamber Facebook page, Pollakusky talked to Anker through an aide holding a phone, which had Anker saying she had already told the chamber president no, and said, “Police would be there if you are not off the premises in the next hour.”

Both legislative candidates have put the onus on the other for why the chamber was denied access.

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 is the main sponsors and promoter for the summer concert series alongside the Suffolk County Legislature. Post Commander Joe Cognitore said he had told the chamber members they were invited and had written a letter to that effect. 

The letter, dated July 22, invites the chamber to manage and invite business in the community to the summer concert series, reading, “In keeping with our commitment to our downtown revitalization grant we look forward to supporting our business community.”

In the past, local businesses have been allowed at the annual summer concerts.

“The only permission required was that of the event organizer.”

— Gary Pollakusky

He added the VFW post does not get involved in politics and runs the concert for the benefit of the veterans and community.

“We’re apolitical,” Cognitore said. “The chamber, civic, they meet at the post. I’m part of all of them because we’re involved in all parts of the community.”

Charles Todaro, the treasurer of the chamber, confirmed the letter dated July 22, which said it gave permission to the chamber to come set up tables at the event. When they arrived, he said, they were denied entry by Anker’s staff, along with the threat of calling the police.

Todaro said the grants that supplies funds for the concert series are meant to help promote shopping in local businesses. He called the reason they were denied access “political,” but said it wasn’t because Pollakusky is running against Anker.

“We are shocked and appalled by Sarah Anker’s political actions because the chamber had written permission from the concert holder to take part in the event,” Todaro said. “We had all the wheels in motion, and we got this very last minute threat not to come.”

While Cognitore confirmed he had given the letter to the chamber, Anker said she had not learned of such a letter until after the concert. She said her challenger had called last minute Monday, Aug. 26, the day before the concert, to say he and chamber members would be attending. She said she told Pollakusky no over the phone, it being too last minute and with thousands of attendants there would be no room for tables. She added she told him he and his chamber members could come as attendants rather than as vendors.

“We have the concerts to bring people to downtown Rocky Point, not so much to bring the vendors into the concert,” she said. “That’s following the grant requirements for the cultural omnibus funding that funds these concerts.”

Pollakusky said they received contact from the VFW the day before the event asking them to place a courtesy call to the legislator’s office. They received a call the next day at 12 p.m. saying they were not allowed inside.

“There’s been a precedent set for years for the North Brookhaven Chamber to attend, there’s also been a precedent set for businesses to attend,” the chamber president said. “The only permission required was that of the event organizer … I’m very disappointed that Sarah would use her office to prevent the chamber and other local businesses from taking part in a community event funded from taxpayer’s money.”

“We have the concerts to bring people to downtown Rocky Point, not so much to bring the vendors into the concert.”

— Sarah Anker

Anker said Pollakusky came to the concert grounds at St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in the early afternoon and that he “harassed my staff in a confrontational manner that I had to call police and church security.”

Pollakusky referred to the video posted to the chamber page regarding the chamber’s interactions with Anker’s staff. 

“Our community and our businesses were harmed,” he said.

Both political candidates accused the other of politicizing the situation.

Jennifer Dzvonar, who had been president of the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce before it disassembled in 2017, wrote on Facebook that her chamber had a table at each concert where then members were invited to attend. Dzvonar is now president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce. 

Anker said that while the North Brookhaven chamber had attended previous concerts, they were allowed a single table to advertise members and chamber events. The RPSB chamber was looking to set up multiple tables. She added that previously with the old chamber, details of how and where they would set their tables was established months in advance.

If anything, it’s a rocky start to the upcoming election season.

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Mike DelGuidice and Big Shot, covering Billy Joel hits and more, strode onto the stage in Rocky Point Aug. 27, blowing out the summer concert series with classic rock hits to a packed crowd.

The last in the Downtown Rocky Point Summer Concert Series, sponsored by the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 and Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was held on the lawn of St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church.

From left: Frank, Dominick and Nick LoSquadro in Germany, 1945. Photo from LoSquadro family

By Rich Acritelli

A longtime resident of Rocky Point and distinguished World War II veteran, Dominick T. LoSquadro died Aug. 2. He was 97. 

Through hardship and trial, this World War II veteran was the epitome of what is often considered the Greatest Generation. He was an active member of the VFW Post 6249 Rocky Point, and the veterans organization lost a dynamic and key member of its organization this month, one that always wanted to help other military service members and community residents.

From left to right: Nick, Frank and Dominick LoSquadro in Wiesbaden, Germany, toward the end of the war in 1945. Photo from LoSquadro family

LoSquadro’s story began as a poor Brooklyn kid — born July 28, 1922. He was the youngest of seven children with four brothers and two sisters. Growing up his family had no comforts at home. They survived due to the hard work of their father, who delivered blocks of ice, and their mother who managed a grocery store. Their home had no heat or hot water and when the would-be Rocky Point resident was a child, his brothers paid him a nickel to warm the toilet seat for their use. It was a common practice for this family to stay near the kitchen, where they felt some warmth from the cooking stove. Dominick did not take a hot shower until he was drafted into the Army as a young man during World War II.

The boys grew up with Italian-speaking parents, but together they only spoke a few words of the language, and their mom spoke little English. There were only a couple of Italian words that were utilized in order to communicate with each other. Years later, when LoSquadro was stationed in Germany, he understood and spoke German more than he could Italian. 

As a kid who grew up in the streets of Brooklyn, LoSquadro collected rags and sticks which he sold to a local junk vendor. He used the pennies and nickels he earned for movie tickets. He also worked with his father to deliver ice to various parts of the city. As a child his poor eyesight led to equally poor grades, and his teachers did not realize that he had a difficult time reading the board and they continually moved him to the back of the classroom. They believed that he was a challenged student that was unable to keep up with their instructions and, for many years, LoSquadro never fully realized his educational potential.

During his teenage years, family and friends remembered he always had a brilliant smile and a full head of hair, making him a favorite of local ladies. He was a talented ballroom dancer who immensely enjoyed listening to popular big band music in New York City. Before the war, LoSquadro enrolled into an automotive school where he earned a degree so he could be a mechanic. He flourished in this environment, and he would take his expertise in fixing, driving and directing heavy machinery in his military and civilian occupations.

For the late Rocky Point resident’s generation, it was a trying time to be a young adult after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. The United States quickly entered the war effort to fight the Japanese in the Pacific and the Germans in North Africa and Europe. Right away, the five “LoSquadro brothers” entered the military to do their part. Like that of his three older brothers, Dominick was drafted into the Army Dec. 29, 1942, where he applied his civilian trade as a mechanic in the service. His earliest military time began at Camp Upton Army base in Yaphank, where he entered his basic training with a serious fever that quickly became an ear infection. LoSquadro was stationed at several military bases in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and South Carolina, but as these units were shipped overseas, he was not sent with them due to his medical condition. The Army warned that if he was attacked with chemical or biological weapons that it could prove to be terribly fatal due to his ailments.

Despite being held back, it was his goal to be ordered overseas to be near his family members and friends that were already fighting against the Germans and Japanese. The Army eventually looked past his medical record and shipped him to Liverpool, England, where he was quickly sent to France. LoSquadro was vital in keeping the trucks, jeeps and tanks moving against the strength of the Germans, as they were pushed back to their own border. He also conducted backbreaking labor, as he helped reconfigure air strips after they were bombed and damaged by the German Luftwaffe.  

Like that of other American families, the LoSquadro boys were all in harm’s way trying to fight against the fascist regime. His brother, Frank, was with the second wave of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings at Omaha Beach. That December, Frank was a medic that survived the Battle of the Bulge, where just about his entire unit was killed by the Germans. At one point, he acted as if he was dead for three days to avoid being shot or captured by the enemy. Later, the army wanted Frank to re-enlist, but he had witnessed terrible accounts during the war and he wanted to go home. LoSquadro’s brother rarely spoke about his traumatic experiences.

During the height of the war, the brothers were determined to meet up with each other. Dominick worked on the military trucks that operated at the air fields, where they loaded and delivered war supplies to the soldiers in the field. He was in closer contact with his brother Frank who was stationed near the railroad lines at the front. They both decided to search for their brother Nicholas, who served with the Office of Strategic Services (later renamed the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War). He helped collect and analyze intelligence from enemy double agents, the resistance, captured prisoners of war and more.

Both Dominick and Frank hitchhiked on the French roads as they were looking for Nicholas. They were pleasantly surprised, as it was Nicholas who discovered them as he drove down a road in his jeep. These two brothers, both grunts, saw a much different face of the military from Nicholas who was an officer, as he was not often in the field and he lived in homes that had servants to clean his clothing and cook meals. They were overjoyed to be briefly together during the course of the war, where they were alive, united and fighting for their nation.  

Dominick LoSquadro during his army days. Photo from LoSquadro family

At the very end of World War II, as the U.S. dealt with the growing power of the Soviet Union in Europe and the end of the fighting against the Japanese in Asia, the LoSquadros were formerly recognized for their service. About a week before the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, their mother received a letter from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. It genuinely stated, “For my part, I should like to assure you of the deep appreciation of the nation which has accepted their service with gratitude and a strong sense of responsibility.” Stimson was one of the most powerful leaders in the nation to oppose Germany and Japan, and he evidently respected the role that the entire LoSquadro family played to help defeat the Axis powers.

As a seasoned veteran that spent over three years in the military, LoSquadro finally returned home to New York City where he was employed as a diaper and furniture delivery man. In the late 1940s, he brought these items to famous musicians like that of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and to the actress Kitty Carlisle. Later in life, LoSquadro had poor knees and it was attributed to running up the stairs of high-rise buildings where he made these deliveries. It was not until the mid-1950s that LoSquadro was motivated to earn a city job. Once he was examined for his eyes, it turned out that he was an able test taker and he performed well on exams, and he was later employed as a bus driver.

After the war, LoSquadro again flourished as a dancer, and he always received interest from the ladies that had liked his ballroom skills and looks. He spent many nights at the Roseland Dance Club in Manhattan, near the Ed Sullivan Theater. He was friends with all of the bouncers, perfected his craft of dancing and met his wife at this establishment. Once he was married, LoSquadro raised a family of five children, including one son and four daughters at homes in Corona and Elmhurst. While he worked long hours, he was known for his creativity as a handyman who could repair practically anything. He drove many hours of overtime to support his large family on one salary. The World War II vet was known for spending many hours studying for the Metropolitan Transit Authority exams which enabled him to be promoted as a foreman and later a general superintendent. As when in the Army, LoSquadro also faced resentment for being an Italian American as he began to get promoted within higher city positions at the MTA.

He would eventually become responsible for operating large bus garages in Queens Village and in Flushing near the present home of the New York Mets at Citi Field. For many years, he handled numerous responsibilities with the drivers, investigated bus accidents within his district, petitioned for additional funds and made sure that his garages followed MTA regulations. He was always known for utilizing common sense and fairness with a staff of over 500 workers. He would grow to be respected for helping to provide transportation services utilized by millions of people within the city.

During his spare time, local family and friends counted on LoSquadro to repair umbrellas, bicycles, doors, windows and anything that needed some TLC. His children widely believed that if it was broke, that “daddy could fix it.” As a young kid that endured poverty, LoSquadro utilized his ingenuity to recycle products and save money. Later in life, he always enjoyed having nice clothing and cars, but he never forgot the lessons that poverty teaches. It is said in his prime that he had an unbelievable amount of stamina, allowing him to work all day and tinker in his basement for hours where he became a self-taught carpenter.

In the early 1980s, Dominick began living with a longtime companion, where they renovated a bungalow in Rocky Point. For many years, he was a devoted member to Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars, helping to provide aid to vital military and civilian causes. Armed with a big smile and can-do attitude, he was one of the founding members of the post’s annual Wounded Warrior Golf Outing, which raised over $200,000 to help local veterans severely hurt from the War on Terror. LoSquadro knew all of the players, he handed out T-shirts to the golfers, counted raffle ticket money and spoke to all of the wounded armed forces members who were recognized by the organization. Even in his 90s, LoSquadro led an energetic life where he was overjoyed to participate in the many successful activities of Post 6249.

Several years ago, this decorated member of the Greatest Generation finally received his diploma from Rocky Point High School, with students, parents and staff giving him a rousing round of applause. At his wake, Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and post members lined up at the funeral home to pay the ultimate respect to this noted veteran. With tears in his eyes, Cognitore expressed the final goodbyes to one of his best friends. Both of these men were inseparable, as they lobbied government leaders for local and national veteran’s affairs, attended the local summer concert series, marched and presented the colors at local schools during Veterans Day ceremonies and they often went to local restaurants and diners for lunch. 

As a member of this post that had worked closely with LoSquadro, it is my firmest belief that if you were friends with Dominick T. LoSquadro, his acquaintance surely made you into a finer person. Thank you to the unyielding efforts of this veteran to ensure the defense of the United States and his many wonderful contributions as a citizen, all who felt his presence during his time on Earth.

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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Eddie Amodeo holding the image of Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio. Photo from Eddie Amodeo

For Eddie Amodeo, a disabled Vietnam veteran, an ordinary trip to a local garage sale in 2007 led to an unexpected journey that would last more than a decade. 

The Calverton resident and active participant in the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 said he remembers while looking through the variety of items on sale, something struck his eye. 

When he took a closer look, he noticed a poster. On it was a drawing that depicted a scene of the USS Yankee Clipper and the USS Cleveland submarine. Amodeo also noticed that there was an image of Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio immortalized in the sky. 

Intrigued by the poster, Amodeo bought it for $2 and while talking to the lady who ran the yard sale, she disclosed more information about the poster 

“She told me it was originally her grandfather’s and she had found it after he had passed away,” Amodeo said. 

Still curious about the origins of the piece, he began doing research to see if he could find out more information but hit a dead end. 

Amodeo, a lifelong Yankees fan, was able to connect with a team merchandising official, who then connected him with DiMaggio’s grandchildren. 

He learned that the poster was drawn by Burris Jenkins as an homage to the day DiMaggio’s famed 56-game hitting streak ended. The drawing depicts a sea battle with DiMaggio batting in the clouds with text reading ‘the 57th Game! 

The two grandchildren then referred Amodeo to Morris Engelberg, Joe DiMaggio’s estate lawyer. 

The Calverton resident also contacted the Baseball Hall of Fame to see if they were interested in the piece. He first provided the museum with a picture of the poster, but they requested to see the original. Amodeo took the poster to Cooperstown for a museum curator to personally examine it and then it was brought in front of the museum’s board. 

Amodeo said he talked to Engelberg a few times about a licensing agreement tied to the poster. After negotiating with the estate lawyer, they eventually came to a mutual agreement on a licensing agreement. 

“There was a lot of back and forth between us,” the Calverton resident said. “But I was able to get the blessing from the estate.”

Amodeo hoped to auction the prints to charities helping disabled veterans and children suffering from cancer as well as seeing if the Yankees and Indians wanted to sell his prints at their store, though he hit a roadblock. 

Despite getting a licensing agreement from the DiMaggio estate, Amodeo would need a separate agreement from Major League Baseball for him to be able to sell and auction the poster. 

“You can get an agreement from MLB, but you have to pay,” he said. 

Amodeo has been persistent but says it is tough to get those doors open as he works
by himself. 

“I haven’t really made progress unfortunately.” he said. “I’m trying to get a hold of someone in the Yankees organization and see where I can go with this.”

The Vietnam veteran added he didn’t have the money to go to a lawyer when he was initially  going through the process. 

Despite his struggles, after more than a decade, the poster is now on display in Cooperstown.  

Amodeo said he made the trip up when the American Legion had its 100th anniversary this year, but was disappointed to see the piece wasn’t on display. 

“They told me that the poster is so fragile that is displayed in cycles,” he said. “I hope to see it in person one day.”

Amodeo said he is fortunate he found the poster all those years ago. 

“It is something I’m proud of,” he said. “It is something that is in the history books.”

In honor of Memorial Day, Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park hosted its annual Parade of Flags, while VFW’s in Rocky Point and Sound Beach took the time May 27 to memorialize those servicemen and servicewomen lost throughout the years.

Joe Cognitore, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point, read the names of 204 people who have died in the service of the U.S., with each set of names said to the sound of a bell. He said the number of names he reads every Memorial Day grows every year.

Over in Sound Beach, the Sound Beach Civic, along with members of the Sound Beach Fire Department, hosted their own ceremony at the Sound Beach Veterans Memorial. Flags flew at half mast, but veterans of each branch of service, from the U.S. Military, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, helped raise each of the flags high to the bright, sunny sky. Members of the Miller Place Boy Scouts of America Troop 204 played an echo version of taps.

“Flowers, memorials and flags at half staff, and the sad notes of taps, as meaningful as they are, they are not enough,” Cognitore said. What we really must do to honor their sacrifice is to live what they died for.”

 

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.

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.”

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore and developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point Mark Baisch team up to build the homes for returning veterans. File photos

By Desirée Keegan

Receiving keys can be a magical moment for anyone, but for Joe Cognitore and Mark Baisch, they’re more excited about handing them over.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 commander and the developer and owner of Landmark Properties, respectively, have been building and giving homes to veterans for the last four years. They’ve created 11 homes so far, and this year, the duo amped up the intensity to build three homes, with a fourth in the works.

For their work in the community and for dedicating their time and efforts to honoring and helping those who served our country, Cognitore and Baisch are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

“It’s bittersweet,” Cognitore said. “There’s many candidates that we come across and every one of them deserves the home. Just to hear their stories is amazing.”

Veteran Deborah Bonacasa receives keys from Mark Baisch, developer and owner of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, to her new home in Sound Beach. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Cognitore first met Baisch at a fundraiser Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) was hosting. Not knowing anyone at the event, the two found themselves sitting at the same table, and Cognitore began talking about the possibility of building a home for a disabled veteran.

“I thought it’d be one and done,” Baisch said, laughing, while thinking about the first home. “I never thought it would get to this level, but what we’re able to do for these families is so good that it would be hard for me to think about not doing this.”

The two recently unveiled the 11th home for returning veterans to the Cote family, who now own a home in Miller Place. The Bonacasas and Johnsons also received homes this year.

“I’m at a loss with words for everything they did for me and my family,” Deborah Bonacasa said. She is an Air Force veteran whose husband, Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa from Coram, died after a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan. “They’re professional and thoughtful. I think it’s great what they’re doing for veterans and recognizing and advocating and stepping up to do things for those who do so much for our country. This house is, and they are, a constant reminder that there are great people still out there willing to help people.”

Rocky Point social studies teacher Rich Acritelli said no one cares more about veterans — and the entire hamlet — than Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” he said. “He personifies everything that a citizen should be, in terms of national and local service, between being in the military and always working for the betterment of his community.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was proud to see how the two stepped up for the Cote family, who were kicked out of their home when the landlord let the Sound Beach property fall into foreclosure. The family has also struggled with illness. Mother Renée Cote has acute intermittent porphyria, a rare and painful metabolic disorder that requires expensive biweekly treatments, which she has undergone for 14 years at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson. Her 7-year-old son, Zachary, was diagnosed with Grade 4 medulloblastoma, brain cancer, in June 2014, and endured 42 rounds of radiation and nine months of intense chemotherapy, until he was also diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria.

Mark Baisch, at left sitting at table, has new homeowner Deborah Bonacasa, right, sign papers for her new home made possible by himself and VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore, standing on right. File photo from VFW Post 6249

“They are literally warriors to those that need help,” Anker said. “They get out there, they understand the struggles and they’re there to help, and that’s what’s so important. When Mark heard about Zachary Cote’s situation, he came to the rescue. Talk about superheroes, they are our local superheroes.”

Cote’s husband Glen was a U.S. Army combat medic in the Gulf War, before coming home and suffering an on-the-job injury that disabled him.

“Anyone that met them couldn’t believe what a great family,” Cognitore said. “Especially Zachary, what a little gentleman.”

But Renée Cote said she can’t believe what a great group Cognitore, Baisch and the rest of the developers and donators are.

“I could sit there and write a million thank you cards, and to me, it would not be enough for what they’re doing,” she said. “And I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing. To first serve our country, and then to give back — and I mean give back in a huge way — it’s good to be surrounded by people like that. They’re angels walking the Earth.”

Baisch said his contractors and the community showed more support for the Cotes’ new home in Miller Place than on any other house. There were over 30 volunteers, some of whom have been helping Baisch since the first home. Many of them donate windows, garage doors, bathtubs and furniture. Local supermarkets and civic associations also give gift cards to help the new family acclimate to the area.

“They just continue to give and give and give every time we do one of these homes, and they never let me down,” Baisch said of his contractors. “It’s really the only way these homes could come together. We’re not a charity; we consider these homes a hand up, not a hand out. They do the best they can and it’s amazing how much they keep giving. It shocks me after 11 houses that they’re like ‘Mark, let’s do more.’”

Cognitore said he enjoys creating a community of veterans.

“Once they get into these homes, they’re a great neighbor, a great citizen, they keep up their homes, they pay their taxes, so everything works out,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The veterans appreciate that as well.

The Cote family’s new home in Miller Place as part of the local homes for returning veterans program. File photo by Kevin Redding

“It makes me feel at home knowing there are veterans out there like me,” Bonacasa said. “If we ever needed each other, we’re right there.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said she’s thankful that most of the homes have been built in her district.

“It’s very heartwarming,” she said of the welcome-home ceremonies. “It’s impossible to not get choked up. Especially the most recent one with the Cote family — they’ve had some significant challenges. They were struggling, and Joe and Mark saved them.”

Baisch said that the real tragedy of it all is the fact that without his help, the families wouldn’t be able to remain on Long Island.

“They had no real chance of having a family here and living here if it weren’t for these homes, so that’s the all-encompassing enjoyment out of it,” he said. “These people would have been long gone, and they’re not the types of people we’d like to see leave Long Island. They served their country and they’re Long Islanders, each and every one of them. For them to have to leave because they can’t afford to live here, there’s something wrong with that.”

Bonner said what the “dynamic duo” does shows their true character.

“Mark is very altruistic, and he’s never looking for a pat on the back about it, he just feels passionately about it and does it because he thinks it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “And Joe is a tremendous advocate for veterans and a true Patriot. Their hearts are bigger than their wallets. It’s more about doing the right thing than it is about making money.”

Baisch said as long as Landmark Properties is around, he’ll continue to do something like this.

“It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” Baisch said. “I can’t explain it. I can’t come up with words enough to tell how wonderful it feels. The thought of not continuing doing this doesn’t even enter my mind.”