By Rich Acritelli
During the 1980s, there were many Vietnam War veterans raising families among us. Many of these veterans rarely spoke of their combat experiences. Richard Kitson is a local leader who tirelessly advocates for all veterans.
A longtime resident of Port Jefferson Station, president of the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 11 and a Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 member, Kitson has always cared for veterans. Originally from Manhattan, he moved to Levittown in 1954 and lived among the massive veteran population that had used the Montgomery GI Bill for housing.
Coming from a large family, his father fought during the Battle of the Bulge, receiving the Purple Heart for his valor against the Germans during World War II.
Kitson enjoyed the bustling suburban community, where he swam at town pools, ran track, played basketball and was a talented baseball catcher who later coached his two sons.
After graduating high school in 1965, Kitson briefly attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn and moved back to Manhattan. Working and going to school full time, Kitson eventually joined the United States Marine Corps in 1966. He graduated from Parris Island, South Carolina, and was trained at the demolition and heavy equipment school.
After going to the Jungle Warfare Training Center at Camp Pendleton, California, Kitson was deployed to South Vietnam’s I Corps, stationed at Đông Hà Combat Base, located near the North and South Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
As a result of heavy casualties, Kitson’s job soon changed. He was ordered to be a mortarman to support the Marines fighting in the field. Quickly learning this new task, Kitson aimed to help American infantry “grunts” operate against the enemy.
This hotly contested area is remembered for its heavy American casualties. Years later, Kitson still vividly agonizes over the memory of lost comrades whom he considers close friends.
After completing his tour in South Vietnam, Kitson was ordered to Okinawa, Japan, to be stationed with his original company. Promoted to corporal, Kitson helped create many engineering products on the island. Arriving home in 1968, Kitson was sent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and quickly returned to civilian life.
Kitson observed the political and social upheaval of the war, remembering the poor reception veterans received on their return home. These feelings hardened when his younger brother, John, joined the Marines and was later killed in Vietnam.
The war shaped Kitson’s feelings. He committed that no veteran, regardless of tour of duty, should ever be forgotten by the public or other veterans.
Life grew increasingly difficult as Kitson encountered the hardships of veterans who could not find quality jobs. His family continued facing tragedy when another brother, Joseph, died in a car accident.
Married in 1969, Kitson worked in the bar business for over 10 years and had three children. In 1980, he was hired by the United States Postal Service. He was happier as this job provided more stability and insurance for his family. Kitson later became supervisor and postmaster for the Babylon Post Office, overseeing five buildings, four ZIP codes and 300 postal workers.
Kitson advocated for building the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park at Bald Hill in Farmingville. He and his “Green Jackets” members of the Vietnam Veterans county chapter helped raise the $1.3 million to create this memorial structure seen from the Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and Connecticut.
Eighteen years after America pulled out of South Vietnam, Kitson’s group and local, state and federal officials unveiled this special monument on Nov. 11, 1991.
VFW Post 6249 Cmdr. Joe Cognitore, who grew up some 4 miles from Kitson in Farmingdale, marvels at his contributions.
Kitson “is a great guy who continually strives to care for veterans and to represent our citizens who fought in Vietnam decades ago,” Cognitore, also a Vietnam War vet, said. “He is an asset to the drive of this VFW to fulfill the needs of veteran causes in this community and nation.”
Kitson’s organization on Memorial Day reads the names of Vietnam veterans killed during the war from Suffolk County. Always understanding the importance of history, the Suffolk County chapter of Vietnam Veterans has been involved in teaching this conflict through classes at Ward Melville High School and the former Veterans Day program at Rocky Point High School. The group is always at the Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies held annually at Calverton National Cemetery.
Kitson, now 76, is the chief of community development and civic engagement at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Helping veterans from World War II to the war on terror, he organizes transportation for vets to the hospital, offering guidance for tapping into government benefits.
During this holiday season, Kitson has already distributed hams and turkeys to feed needy veterans. A big, burly man with a voice reminiscent of actor Jack Nicholson’s, when one sees Kitson, one also receives a hearty hello, a big handshake and the question, “What can I do to help?”
For his valuable contributions through the Suffolk County chapter of Vietnam Veterans “Green Jackets” and his altruism and charity for local veterans, TBR News Media recognizes Richard Kitson as a 2023 Person of the Year.