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Vietnam

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.”

Vietnam-born Hakin Lienghot, the subject of Eileen Davenport's first novel, was 'adopted' by Three Village community

Eileen Davenport, on right, is writing a novel about Hakin Lienghot, on left, who was adopted by the Three Village community following his immigration to the United States from Vietnam. Hank Boerner, at center, worked for American Airlines and helped the then-13-year-old get a flight to his new home. Photo from Eileen Davenport

Eileen Davenport has embarked on a writing journey, and she’s hoping local residents will join her on a trip down memory lane. The Setauket resident is working on a book about Hakin Lienghot, better known as Kin, a young man adopted by Three Village community members when he immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1967. She is reaching out to the community asking for stories involving her longtime friend.

Davenport said Lienghot, who now lives in Rhode Island, was a Montagnard child from Da Me in the Central Highlands of Vietnam whose people were mistreated by their fellow Vietnamese. When James Turpin, an American doctor, visited his village with the independent relief organization Project Concern, he met Lienghot and discovered the teenager dreamed of one day going to college. When the doctor returned to the United States, he addressed the members of the Three Village Jaycees, a junior chamber of commerce where members were between 18 and 35 years old. He asked the community to help him bring the young man to the states.

Hakin Lienghot arrives at John F. Kennedy airport and is greeted by the Fleeson family, who he stayed with over winter break. Photo from Eileen Davenport

“All these people in Three Village started to stand up and say, ‘We will help this boy to get here,’” Davenport said in a phone interview. 

She said she’s not certain of all the details, but Lienghot was offered a five-year scholarship to The Stony Brook School, and members of the Jaycees offered additional help. A clothing store owner said he would give Lienghot clothes, others said he could stay at their home during school breaks. Hank Boerner, who had just moved to Stony Brook and worked for American Airlines, offered to approach the company to arrange Lienghot’s transportation.

When the 13-year-old landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, the Jaycees, his future schoolmates, the local public school band and the Stony Brook Fire Department were there to greet him. She said the young man carried two bows and two arrows in his hand.

“His father said, ‘Here take this to your host family as a gesture to say that we are so happy and proud that they took you,’” Davenport said. “It was just this big hospitality thing.”

Lienghot said he was overwhelmed when he arrived at the airport, as he didn’t expect to be greeted by so many people, and his knowledge of English consisted basically of “yes,” “no,” and “thank you.”

“I didn’t expect anything like that so I was overwhelmed; I was frightened,” Lienghot said. “But I was cool on the outside, and I was frightened on the inside. I didn’t know how to talk to people or communicate. They had someone from the Vietnamese consulate to interpret for me.”

He remembers it snowing when the Fleeson family of Stony Brook drove him to their home where he stayed with the family until school began after winter break. He remembered that first night trying Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and not liking the  taste of it, and the next day throwing snowballs with the neighborhood children, and the Fleesons taking him to Sears in the Smithhaven Mall.

Eileen Davenport and Hakin Lienghot dance at his wedding. Photo from Eileen Davenport

He said he tried his best to fit in with the American children he met, so much so that it wasn’t until he matured that he realized the significance of his experiences here.

“I would love to hear about what people remember about me, because I was so focused on fitting in,” he said.

Lienghot, who is now a clinical social worker specializing in children with ADHD and autism has fond memories of his time in the area. He said he would walk down Quaker Path to go to West Meadow Beach and Christian Avenue into Stony Brook Village. From his walks to the village, he remembers looking out into the harbor and going to the shops, and he got his first American haircut from a Stony Brook Village barber.

He started at The Stony Brook School during a time when there were only 47 boys in the prep school, and Davenport said the students came from some of the most elite families, such as Edmund Lynch from the Merrill Lynch family.

While the original plans were for Lienghot to return home during summer vacation, circumstances in Vietnam prevented it. The Viet Cong attacked his village, and people were shot at point-blank range. In the attacks, he lost his brother-in-law and cousin as well as 36 others in his village. When he did get home in 1969, he was almost drafted when he was stopped while riding a scooter. He said he pretended to only know English, and for identification he just showed his Stony Brook School ID. After that, he knew he couldn’t return to his village again. 

The Three Village Jaycees, who already helped Lienghot with food, clothing and books, now opened up their homes to ensure he would have a place to stay during every school break and summer vacation.

“It was a collective community thing, really kind of parenting him,” the writer said.

Hakin Lienghot arrives at John F. Kennedy airport with flight attendants. Photo from Eileen Davenport

Davenport said she hopes Three Village residents can help her with the story of Lienghot, because her family only became a part of his life after he left The Stony Brook School. She said it was in the early 1970s when her father, Ed McAvoy, joined the Jaycees and was the newly elected president of the group. Lienghot was graduating from high school at the time, and her father decided to go to the graduation ceremony.

As her father was leaving, her mother Mary Ann said to him, “Just make sure he has somewhere to go.”

When Davenport’s father saw Lienghot, the young man didn’t know where he was going for the summer, and McAvoy invited him to stay at his home for the summer with his wife and four children.

While Lienghot was at the McAvoys they helped him pack for college and obtain his green card since his student visa ended. The young man had a four-year scholarship playing soccer at Barrington College and eventually went on to Boston University. Every college school break he came back to the McAvoy family, and through the decades has visited the family regularly.

“He kind of adopted us as family and we adopted him,” Davenport said.

The new author said many have told Lienghot to write a book, and but he never believed anyone would be interested in his story. She said while she has no experience in writing books, she’s an avid reader of memoirs and non-fiction inspirational stories, and she believes many would read a book about a community coming together and taking in an immigrant child during war.

The future author said to her adopted brother,  “I read stories like this all the time, and I know it’s a good story to tell.”

Those who remember Lienghot can email their stories to info@kinshipmemoir.com.

John Cincar uses the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

Two eyes and an iPad is all Vietnam veteran John Cincar needs to completely transform his day-to-day life.

Cincar, a resident at Stony Brook’s Long Island State Veterans Home, lost his ability to move his arms and hands, but only needs his eyes to operate a $12,000 iPad the home helped him secure this week as part of its mission to enhance residents’ independence. With help from the device and the home, Cincar said he could open the door to a world he had not been able to access on his own for years. By looking at control keys or cells displayed on the iPad screen, Cincar said he can generate speech, activate functions such as turning on a light or television, and even surf the internet.

“It’s very easy for me to use,” he said. “It does everything. I can get in touch with the world again.”

The eye-tracking device, which the veterans home referred to as an “eye gazer,” was a by-product of a donation from Bowlers to Veterans Link Chairman John LaSpina, a Long Island native and owner of various bowling alleys across the Island. The BVL is a not-for-profit organization that works to support American veterans, raises about $1 million per year through bowlers and bowling centers nationwide, and has a working relationship with the Long Island State Veterans Home, LaSpina said.

John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home
John Cincar, center, accepts the eye-tracking iPad device in Stony Brook thanks to a donation from The Bowlers to Veterans Link. Photo from Long Island State Veterans Home

“An opportunity like this just seemed so incredibly great that we couldn’t say no to it,” he said. “We’re talking about a facility totally dedicated to veterans. The place is immaculately clean. They do wonderful things.”

The BVL donation to the Long Island State Veterans Home was made possible from the proceeds of the “PBA50 Johnny Petraglia BVL Open,” which was held at the Farmingdale Lanes from Saturday, May 7 through Tuesday, May 10.

With the Vietnam era now more than four decades old, the Long Island State Veterans Home has been seeing more veterans who served in that war coming through its doors. And with each war comes a different kind of ailment that staff must combat.

“Many of these guys, their brains are fully intact, but their bodies are shot. They’re trapped,” said Jonathan Spier, deputy executive director for the Long Island State Veterans Home.

Just five years ago, Spier said, the home had only two Vietnam veterans living there. That number skyrocketed to more than 50 by 2016, he said, with former combat men suffering from specific injuries like exposure to Agent Orange and other muscle-related difficulties.

Fred Sganga, executive director of the veterans home, said the addition of the eye-tracking device only furthered his group’s mission to enhance the quality of life of more than 6,000 Long Island veterans.

“The goal is to maximize every veteran’s independence,” he said. “We want to be strategically ready for the next generation of veterans coming here, and this technology is transformational for someone who is a paraplegic.”

When asked how he planned on harnessing the power of the iPad to his benefit, Cincar said he hopes to study new languages, like Romanian — the language of the land he was born in.

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

By Rich Acritelli

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

To say that Long Island native Butch Langhorn has lived a full life would be an understatement. As a veteran and a community man, he has both seen a lot and given a lot back to the county that raised him.

From his youth, Langhorn was a gifted three-sport athlete, excelling in football, basketball and track for Riverhead High School. His impact was so great that he held the record for the triple jump for 10 years after his graduation.

In 1964, the young man enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens. While he worked in the personnel office, his sporting abilities allowed him the chance to play basketball within the Special Services of the Army. Langhorn competed as a 5-foot-8-inch guard against many who had experience playing semiprofessional and Division I hoops. The servicemen competing had the rare opportunity of representing their military bases in games that ranged from Maine to New Jersey.

The next year, Langhorn was deployed to South Vietnam, where he saw the earliest action of the war in Southeast Asia. In an interview, he noted the beauty of the nation and the influence of French culture on the former capital of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. For a couple of months, Langhorn was a gunner on a helicopter that flew into the major combat areas of South Vietnam, engaged against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. He was tasked with helping medical evacuation crews with the vital mission of returning wounded and dead U.S. soldiers to American bases.

As a young African-American soldier during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Langhorn observed the treatment of blacks in South Vietnam. According to Langhorn, he had a relationship with a local woman of French descent who took him home to meet her family. When he met her mother, the woman told him to shower and take a nap before dinner. Again he came into her presence and she wrongly believed that he was a white soldier who had too much dirt on his skin. It was one example of a different racial experience for Langhorn — he quickly learned that most of the black soldiers who were fighting against the communists in South Vietnam were not understood by the very people they were trying to protect.

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn

After more than a year overseas, Langhorn went home to finish his Army tour. By 1971, he quickly re-enlisted as an active guardsmen reservist, serving full-time for the New York 106th Air National Guard base in Westhampton Beach. For many years, he was the head of the recruiting station that brought in many fine airmen, noncommissioned officers and officers. Langhorn had a prideful hand in signing military members from different backgrounds to enhance the Air Force wing. Many of the men and women he recruited have been deployed to the Middle East to fight the war on terror, conducted massive air-sea rescues in the Atlantic Ocean, endured the rigors of the elite pararescue jumper training and deployments, and tackled the older mission of aiding space shuttle landings. Langhorn later oversaw the personnel department that was responsible for sorting out the paperwork needs of the military unit.

Langhorn may be retired after serving four decades in uniform, but he is still a dominant member of his community and has spent a lot of that time trying to help young people. He served on the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education for five years, working to keep athletics and other programs in the schools, and as a current assistant for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, he organizes educational programs that bring high school criminal justice students to visit the county jail. In his role, he also helps guide nonprofit groups that are focused on rehabilitating inmates. In addition, former Congressmen Michael Forbes and Tim Bishop both recognized Langhorn’s professionalism, and he served as an instrumental member of their staffs to handle veterans affairs.

Since his youth, this North Shore citizen has given back to his society and to his nation. TBR Newspapers salutes him during Black History Month.

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The Setauket High School senior class dedicated the 1946 yearbook to the eight Setauket men who died in World War II. They are, from top to bottom and left to right, Cpl. Douglas Hunter, Sgt. Francis Hawkins, Cpl. William Weston, Lt. Anthony Matusky, Fireman First Class Clifford Darling, and Machinist Mate Orlando Lyons. Henry Eichacker and Edward Pfeiffer are not pictured. Photo from Beverly Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Anthony Matusky received his wings at Pensacola, Fla., in 1941. His sister, Mary Matwell, remembered that Anthony had said that he trained off Greenland in the unit with Joseph Kennedy. At the time of his death, Anthony was stationed on the Trinidad Naval Base as a pilot in a naval patrol squadron engaged in patrolling for enemy submarines, which were taking a heavy toll of shipping in the Caribbean.

“The Navy Department has notified Mrs. John Matusky, of Setauket, that her son, Lieut. Anthony R. Matusky, U.S.N.R., reported missing in action last August [1943], has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, highest aviation honor, in recognition of the following service: ‘For heroism and extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a pilot attached to a Patrol Squadron during a coordinated attack on an enemy submarine in the Caribbean Sea . . . His cool courage and superb airmanship in the face of danger contributed decisively to the eventual destruction of the enemy submarine and the capture of her crew.”
— New York Journal American, 1944

As reported in the November 1945 issue of The Reader’s Digest by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ira Wolfert, in an article titled “The Silent, Invisible War Under the Sea,” the German submarines were an effective tool in destroying the supply arm of the Allied efforts, sinking 1,161 merchant vessels in 1942. Their subs basically owned the Atlantic until an effective strategy was developed using aircraft and radar to find submarines recharging their batteries on the surface and the ideal attack procedures to cripple and sink them.

On the night of Aug. 5, 1943, a patrol plane out of Trinidad Naval Base spotted a sub and made an attack as the sub crash-dived. The Mariner aircraft then kept the sub in radar contact all night but it did not surface again. As detailed by Wolfert, “At dawn [the patrol plane] running low on gas was replaced by Lieut. A.R. Matuski. For seven and a half tedious hours, Matuski plied back and forth and around a square of ocean, figuring how he would maneuver if he were a sub skipper who had been down so and so many hours in such and such currents and this and that kind of sea, and making his gambit accordingly.

“Matuski was a boy who knew his business. At 1321 hours (1:21 p.m.) Trinidad Naval Base got a sub contact report from him, giving longitude and latitude, adding ‘I am going in to attack.’
‘1330’ he radioed, ‘sub damaged, bow out of water, making only about two knots.
‘1335: sub bow sank.
‘1337: no casualties to plane or personnel.
‘1348: Damaged. Damaged. I am on fire.’”

The Setauket High School senior class dedicated the 1946 yearbook to the eight Setauket men who died in World War II. They are, from top to bottom and left to right, Cpl. Douglas Hunter, Sgt. Francis Hawkins, Cpl. William Weston, Lt. Anthony Matusky, Fireman First Class Clifford Darling, and Machinist Mate Orlando Lyons. Henry Eichacker and Edward Pfeiffer are not pictured. Photo from Beverly Tyler
The Setauket High School senior class dedicated the 1946 yearbook to the eight Setauket men who died in World War II. They are, from top to bottom and left to right, Cpl. Douglas Hunter, Sgt. Francis Hawkins, Cpl. William Weston, Lt. Anthony Matusky, Fireman First Class Clifford Darling, and Machinist Mate Orlando Lyons. Henry Eichacker and Edward Pfeiffer are not pictured. Photo from Beverly Tyler

There were no other transmissions from Lt. Matusky’s aircraft and no trace of the pilot or crew of 10 was ever found. Trinidad sent another aircraft to keep up the pressure on the sub and as detailed by Wolfert, “[The next naval patrol bomber] reached the position given by Matuski and 20 minutes later picked up the enemy pip on his radar. When he got in visual range, he could see that Matuski had done his last work well. The sub’s stern was down, its bow up, and it was lumbering across the sea.”

Together with an additional naval aircraft, a blimp and finally an army bomber the sub was sunk. Navy destroyers picked up 40 sub survivors the next morning.      

Anthony was killed during the war but his four brothers returned home, all five honored. Anthony’s name is engraved on the monuments on the Setauket Village Green and the East Setauket Memorial Park along with the other seven men from Setauket who died in WWII.

Two men from the local area gave their lives in WWI, Raymond Wishart and Harry Golden. A massive boulder and south-facing bronze tablet were erected on the Setauket Village Green in their memory. The boulder was brought from Strong’s Neck and the plaque was designed by the well-known artist William DeLeftwich Dodge who painted the murals on New York history that are in the state capital in Albany.

On the opposite side of the rock is a plaque that was placed there after WWII.  It reads, “1941-1945 In memory of Clifford J. Darling, Henry P. Eichacker, Francis S. Hawkins, David Douglas Hunter, Orlando B. Lyons, Anthony R. Matusky, Edward A. Pfeiffer, (and) William E. Weston of the United States Armed Forces who gave their lives in World War II.” On the memorial in East Setauket is also listed the local serviceman Chris F. Brunn who died in Vietnam.

We have a lot to be thankful for during this time of Thanksgiving. We have a very special community here in the hamlets of Setauket and Stony Brook and the villages of Old Field and Poquott. Let us never forget the sacrifice made by these men, by those service men and women from our community who were injured physically and/or mentally, and by all the men and women who served in war and in peacetime to keep us safe and free.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

Phil Tepe, Paul Kelly and Fred Amore, members of the Town of Huntington Veterans Advisory Board, and Supervisor Frank Petrone unveil names at the Vietnam memorial wall on June 11. Photo from A.J. Carter

Huntington Town has added 378 names to its Vietnam War memorial, and unveiled tribute plaques on June 11 as part of a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the end of the conflict and the half-century that has passed since it began.

Almost 3 million Americans served in the military during the Vietnam War between March 1965 and April 1975, and more than 58,000 died in the conflict.

The town kicked off the day with a breakfast that served veterans, their families and supporters and included musical performances as well as a keynote address from Huntington native Frank Libutti, a retired U.S. Marine corps lieutenant general. He spoke about his service and experiences as a platoon commander in Vietnam. During the breakfast, according to a town press release, the names of the 49 Huntington residents who were killed in that war were read aloud.

Later, people gathered at Veterans Plaza in front of Town Hall for a ceremony dedicating the plaques with the 378 new names at the Vietnam memorial wall. The town said there are now 1,540 names at that memorial, which was erected in 2003 and includes names of Vietnam War-era veterans who live or have lived in the town.

The Town of Huntington Veterans Advisory Board was named an official Vietnam War commemorative partner, as part of an initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the war’s beginning, and the local event was listed on the national website for the program.

Vietnam veteran Thomas Semkow, from Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars, poses with members of the A-Team in 1968. Photo from Semkow

‘Many veterans of Vietnam still serve in the Armed Forces, work in our offices, on our farms, and in our factories. Most have kept their experiences private, but most have been strengthened by their call to duty. A grateful nation opens her heart today in gratitude for their sacrifice, for their courage, and for their noble service.’ — President Ronald Reagan, Memorial Day Speech, May 28, 1984

By Rich Acritelli

Today Vietnam veterans comprise the largest group of Americans who have fought for this country. Nearly three million citizens were deployed to Southeast Asia during the longest war in our history. For the next couple of decades, they will also be the most prominent group of veterans in this nation.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo

Locally, the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans and the VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 of Rocky Point are two groups that strenuously work to welcome home all members of the armed forces who have protected this nation during the war on terror. These organizations are headed by two men who are driven to help every veteran.

Richard Kitson, from Port Jefferson Station, is the longtime president of the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans. Members of this chapter all point to Kitson’s dedication: He organizes members to speak in the schools, march in parades, welcome home veterans, help their families and assist veterans who have fallen on hard times. Both groups have been a fixture at the Rocky Point High School Veterans Day program and have been guest speakers at the Vietnam War history classes that are taught at Ward Melville High School in E. Setauket.

Kitson grew up in Levittown and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a mortar man in Dong Ha, situated near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The war had especially hit home for Kitson as he not only lost many friends from his hometown but his brother was killed fighting in Vietnam in 1969. It is families like Kitson’s who have completely sacrificed for this nation.

Instead of returning home to a grateful country, these veterans were degraded for their efforts to serve in the military. For several years the government did not recognize those who fought in Vietnam, and because of this policy, these veterans were not properly recognized for their service. It was not until 1978 that the Vietnam Veterans of America was granted the same rights to function as a charter as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

After the war, Kitson went to college, married, started a family and worked for the post office. It was not until the 1980s that he began to fight for greater rights for the veterans who fought in that war. His devotion helped build the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial at Bald Hill in Farmingville and his chapter will read the names of all those residents of Suffolk County who were lost during that conflict at the site on Memorial Day at 5 p.m.

This weekend marks an important date for Kitson for not only thanking our veterans who served in the military but also to recall the memory of his brother. Kitson and his members are always visible to ensure that our local veterans are properly thanked for their past, present and future service.

Joseph A. Cognitore is the commander of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars. A former football and track standout from Farmingdale, he went to college in South Dakota and after graduation joined the U.S. Army. Cognitore fought in Vietnam in 1970 and had the unique experience of operating inside of Cambodia. A platoon sergeant, he was part of the air cavalry that flew dangerous missions into territory that was held by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Cognitore was a combat veteran who was always looking out for the safety and security of his soldiers.

For almost two decades, Cognitore tried to put the war behind him by taking care of his family and working for the Coca-Cola Company. It was not until the first Gulf War that Cognitore became an active participant at Post 6249 in Rocky Point. He wanted to ensure that the men and women who were serving overseas were properly cared for at home and abroad.

Currently, Cognitore runs one of the most productive VFW posts on Long Island and is the legislative chair for the Department of New York Veterans of Foreign Wars. Retired from his job, Cognitore puts in a tremendous number of volunteer hours running this post. He has helped run a Wounded Warrior Golf Outing, has participated in the creation of a 9/11 Memorial and is always present in our local schools. This weekend presents a somber moment for Cognitore to reflect on all of his comrades who were killed in Vietnam.

Both Kitson and Cognitore state how fortunate they are to have soldiers that still give back to their communities. One of these veterans is Bay Shore resident Ralph Zanchelli. After graduating from high school in 1962, Zanchelli immediately enlisted into the U.S. Naval Reserves. With the war escalating in Vietnam, he was deployed to the USS Bennington CVS 20, which operated in the South China Sea. This aircraft carrier guarded against the North Vietnamese torpedo boats that attacked American shipping off the coast of this communist nation.

From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

Zanchelli was a Hot Case-man gunner who caught the rounds as they were fired. This job ensured that discharged armaments would not start any fires within the ship during combat operations. The carrier served 30-day intervals off the coast of North Vietnam, and Zanchelli observed the earliest moments of this war. For Memorial Day, he would like everyone to say a short prayer for those currently protecting this nation.

Gill Jenkins from Post 6249 is another local citizen who goes about his business in a quiet and friendly manner. He lives by the credo that all veterans, regardless of when they served, must be respected. During the height of the Tet offensive in 1968, Jenkins was a plumber and handyman on the USS Intrepid, which operated off the coast of South Vietnam.

This naval veteran served for four years, and he vividly recalled the launch and recovery efforts of this historic carrier to attack the enemy and to locate those airmen that were shot down. During his naval years, Jenkins traveled around the world on the Intrepid. He recalled how the vessel was hit by a typhoon as it was traveling around the tip of the Cape of Good Hope.

One of the nearly 600,000 armed forces members who were sent to Vietnam in 1968 was Tom Semkow from Center Moriches. Currently the main photographer for Post 6249, Semkow was a Special Forces medic in the Mekong Delta for 10 months. During the height of Tet, he remembered how the enemy made their presence felt by firing mortars and attacking the American military squads that operated in the area. He recalled operating in the flooded areas of this country and receiving air boat rides from Chinese operators who transported them into combat areas. Semkow enjoys the camaraderie of this post and likes to attend the Memorial Day services at Calverton National Cemetery each year.

Memorial Day is a moment when our nation welcomes the warm weather, watches a ball game and barbeques. But we Americans need to take a brief time-out of our schedules to honor and recall those Americans who have protected us during every conflict in our history. Thank you to all those service members, especially to the Vietnam Veterans we “Welcome Home” on this national day of remembrance.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.

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