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Chris Levi and Frank Lombardi, who organized the event, after their voyage. Photo by Kevin Redding

Despite some rough seas during a 22-mile trip from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson Aug. 31, military veterans paddled their kayaks onto the beach on Harborfront Park, with plenty to celebrate.

For the second year in a row, several local members of the armed forces and friends have taken part in The Veterans Kayak PTSD Awareness Challenge in an effort to raise money and awareness for veterans suffering from mental health issues and to help reduce the veteran suicide rate, is 22 suicides a day and more than 8,000 a year, according to data released by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016.

Eight veteran-manned kayaks reach Port Jefferson from Bridgeport Connecticut Aug. 31. Photo by Kevin Redding

Many of these suicides are directly related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-induced stress and depression, according to the website for 22Kill, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about veterans’ issues.

But through the six-hour excursion, which began at the downtown Bridgeport Harbor at around 11 a.m. and ended at the Port Jeff shore at around 5 p.m., more than $60,000 was raised and will go toward the development of a new program to support the veterans in need.

As the eight kayaks came to shore, the veterans were greeted with cheers from a crowded pier.

“It was pretty rough out there today; it’s physical and mental because you can see Long Island from Connecticut, so it just never seems like Long Island is getting any closer,” said Army veteran Frank Lombardi with a laugh. “[But] we had the camaraderie out there to get us through it. It’s awesome, we’re kind of like our own little family.”

It was Lombardi who got the initiative in motion last year after he was horrified to learn the suicide rate statistics, he said. Together with fellow Army veteran Chris Levi, who lost both his legs in 2008 while serving in Iraq, he organized the veteran groups to take the trip across the Long Island Sound. He said he hope the fundraiser will only grow from here on out.

Lombardi, assistant to the CEO of Independent Group Home Living in Manorville, is developing the new program funded with the proceeds raised by the kayak journey, with the nonprofit Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, which provides services to domestic violence and rape victims, many of whom suffer  from PTSD.

“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gets 14,000 calls into the suicide hotline every week and they really can’t handle that volume so we really wanted to do something,” Lombardi said.

Levi, whose spirit prevailed after spending many years in hospitals undergoing surgery and a difficult rehabilitation process, said he loves spending time with his military brothers and sisters.

Chris Levy upon his arrival in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Being able to do these events are what bring us back together in groups and it’s something I always look forward to,” Levi said.

The veteran offered insight into just how difficult kayaking across the Long Island Sound is.

“If I were to quit, I wouldn’t be quitting myself, I’d be quitting the group,” he said. “If anybody gives up, we all give up. Also last year I never applied suntan lotion. This year I learned my lesson and applied copious amounts.”

Glenn Moody, a Marine Corps veteran and Port Jefferson resident who participated in the trek, said this was the first day he’d ever been on a kayak.

“It’s for a great cause and when you’ve got all these veterans out here doing the same thing, it’s enough to push you,” Moody said. “We’re trying to get together as a team and help veterans out. The suicide numbers are too high, and those of us who served don’t want to see our brothers and sisters keep dying. I didn’t even know any of these guys and we all became best friends on the water.”

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From left, veteran Frank Lombardi, Alex Rohman from Time Capital and veteran Chris Levi work to raise awareness for veterans’ mental health issues. Photo from Frank Lombardi

By Colm Ashe

There are more convenient ways to travel from Connecticut to Port Jefferson than across the Long Island Sound on a kayak, but taking the easy way is not an option for two Army veterans.

Chris Levi and Frank Lombardi kayaked from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Port Jefferson Aug. 27 in an effort to raise money and awareness for veterans suffering from mental health issues.

The 22-mile trip took more than six hours to complete. “It was a long day,” Lombardi said with a laugh.

The distance between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson is less than 22 miles, but the pair traveled the extra mileage because of the number’s significance. According to 22Kill, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about veteran suicide and post traumatic stress disorder, 22 veterans commit suicide every day on average. Many of these suicides are directly related to PTSD-induced stress and depression, according to the organization’s website.

Lombardi said he was horrified by the statistic and is motivated to change it. “If we can give hope to just one veteran and prevent them from taking their own lives, we will consider the trip a huge success,” he said.

22Kill, along with four other regional and national nonprofit organizations collaborated to make the event happen.

Among the team of organizations was the War Writers Campaign, a publishing company on a mission to get veteran stories published. Levi and Lombardi raised $5,000 for their campaign by enlisting the help of local businesses like Southampton-based pool and environmental company the Tortorella Group.

“We called John [Tortorella, owner of the Tortorella Group] asking for a $500 donation,” Lombardi said. “He heard what we were doing and gave us $1,000.”

“They are true American heroes whose strength and perseverance can provide hope for the many veterans who need support to pick themselves up and show the world that they can do amazing things.”

— Alex Rohman

Time Capital donated another $1,000 and sponsored a kayak for the event. Alex Rohman, a partner of Time Capital, is an active supporter of the War Writers Campaign. He also recruited Levi and Lombardi for the kayak trip.

“I called Chris and Frank to see if they would be interested in supporting the trip and they immediately agreed,” Rohman said. “Within one day, they wanted to do more to not only support the War Writers Campaign, but wanted to expand the level of awareness to other organizations as well.”

Levi and Lombardi then reached out to other local businesses and organizations to further the cause. Angela’s House, W.B. Mason, Terranova Landscaping, the IGHL Foundation and the Ann Liguori Foundation contributed the remaining donations to the War Writers Campaign.

“Both Chris and Frank represent unconditional support for all veterans and have dedicated their lives to help those who are less fortunate,” Rohman said. “They are true American heroes whose strength and perseverance can provide hope for the many veterans who need support to pick themselves up and show the world that they can do amazing things.”

Beyond the War Writers Campaign and the event, Levi and Lombardi are both deeply involved in their own philanthropic pursuits.

Lombardi is an executive for Independent Group Home Living Program, a group that provides alternatives for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. He also serves on the National Advisory Board of World T.E.A.M Sports, an organization striving to bring together disabled and able-bodied citizens to participate in sports like mountain climbing, white-water rafting, bicycling and kayaking.

Levi is a frequent participant in World T.E.A.M. events. As a disabled veteran himself, Levi has overcome adversity in a big way.

In 2008, he was leading a convoy in Iraq when his Humvee was hit with rockets and IEDs. Levi lost both legs and took significant damage to his right hand and arm. He spent many years in numerous hospitals, but after countless surgeries and a difficult rehabilitation process, his spirit prevailed.

Since then, Levi has strived to become an inspiration in the lives of those who are suffering as an activist and an example. Levi’s goal during the 22-mile paddle across the Long Island Sound, was clear. He said he wanted to “show our fellow veterans that there is hope out there and with the right support, they can truly ‘Climb to Glory.’” This is also the motto of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in which both Levi and Lombardi served.

Lombardi believes the 10th Mountain Division’s motto represents “hope for all veterans who are suffering that they can climb out of the darkness and rise to achieve great things.”