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Afghanistan

This Sunday, Sept. 11, marks 21 years since of one of the darkest episodes in U.S. history. Pixabay photo

“You can be sure that the American spirit will prevail over this tragedy.” — Colin Powell 

Those were the words of the former U.S. secretary of state who passed away last year. As a prominent military and political figure, Powell understood the terrible impact that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would have on the nation. 

Though the 9/11 attacks were 21 years ago, the American public was and remains forever changed. Yet Powell was confident that America could overcome this tragedy.

This year marks the first time that the U.S. has not had a major military force in Afghanistan since the weeks after 9/11. A year ago, President Joe Biden (D) ordered the final withdrawal of soldiers from this war-torn nation. After the withdrawal, Afghanistan was quickly overrun by the Taliban. 

The long-term fighting in Afghanistan contributed to the increase in post-traumatic stress disorder among American servicemen with many other soldiers who were severely wounded fighting in this conflict. For almost two decades, Americans tied yellow ribbons around their trees and kept stars in their windows to represent the military service of their loved ones who served in Afghanistan.  

On May 1, 2011, Americans learned during a New York Mets game against the Philadelphia Phillies that Osama bin Laden was finally killed. Flying from military bases in Afghanistan, members of SEAL Team 6 were transported by helicopters to Abbottabad, Pakistan, where they cornered bin Laden in his compound. Chants of “USA” were heard throughout Shea Stadium once baseball fans learned of the death of this al-Qaida leader. The demise of the coordinator of the terrorist plot on 9/11 provided a sense of justice to the victims on that day and their families.

Despite ongoing political polarization domestically, many can still recall the moments of national solidarity in the wake of the attacks. After 9/11, citizens put their political differences aside for the good of the nation, just as they had done after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Americans in 2001 rallied around the importance of helping local rescue workers and first responders who worked around the clock in Lower Manhattan.  

New Yorkers lined the streets with American flags and handed out food and water to the police officers, firefighters, demolition workers and medical personnel who heroically sifted through the debris at Ground Zero. A plume of smoke hung in the air, blocking visibility of downtown Manhattan. Yet within this cloud, rescue workers operated 24/7.

At Shea Stadium, the New York Mets organized supplies that were sent to the rescue workers. Prominent members of the New York Yankees — Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez — visited firehouses near the World Trade Center and thanked these public servants for their efforts. Both the New York Giants and Jets invited military and rescue workers to spread flags across their football fields. With tears in their eyes, football fans nationwide watched fighter planes soar through the skies above the stadiums. Rival fans who rooted against New York teams wore “NY” on their hats, showing support for the residents of the City.

Here on Long Island, locals need not look far to see patriotism that stirred from that day of infamy. Countless memorials depict the importance of this date. Pieces of steel that were collected by the NY/NJ Port Authority was given to towns across Brookhaven and Suffolk County that were placed at post offices, schools, libraries, and police and fire stations. 

This past spring, the Rocky Point VFW organized the first annual 5K race to support War on Terror veterans as they work to better handle post-traumatic stress disorder.

And so 21 years ago, politics was put aside for the good of the nation. Americans from every corner of this country sent rescue, salvage and fire crews to help the search, and later recovery efforts at Ground Zero.  

In a moment of profound despair, our nation came together. Through shared tragedy, people from diverse economic, social and ethnic backgrounds illustrated the meaning of national unity. 

America today is a deeply divided nation. In the face of unlikely odds, the American people should never doubt their power to resolve their differences and overcome adversity. 

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College.

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Congressman Lee Zeldin. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

People who come home after serving our country overseas should not have to cope with mental illnesses stemming from their experiences, but the sad reality is that most veterans have seen or dealt with traumatic things. That means we have to do everything we can for those who return home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), an Iraq war veteran, is on the right track in addressing this. When he was in the state legislature, he established a peer program in which veterans could help one another battle mental issues, and now he is working to take that initiative to the national level.

Part of the reason this program is important is that it addresses the stigma surrounding mental illness. The shame people feel deters the average citizen from getting help, but think of how those feelings must be compounded in people who carry the weight of a reputation as one of our country’s bravest and strongest. And even without the fear of appearing weak, veterans have experienced many things others cannot truly understand if they have not served in the military. They need and deserve the support of people who have been in their shoes — people who know what they are going through. Mental illness is often woefully misunderstood as it is, so we must mitigate that as much as possible.

Ultimately, we would prefer more resources for military psychiatrists to better identify and treat issues with active servicemen, so they leave their PTSD or other mental or emotional problems overseas, but we will gladly support a national veterans’ peer program to assist those we have so far failed to help.

Darryl St. George at a RAP Week press conference earlier this month. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Since returning home from serving overseas, a homegrown Northport High School teacher has devoted his free time to inspiring students, zeroing in on two specific issues.

Darryl St. George, a Centerport resident and United States Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, is the co-advisor of the Northport High School branch of Students Against Destructive Decisions and the advisor of Project Vets, a club that works to improve the lives of veterans once they return home.

“I love working with young people,” St. George said. “I find what I do in these clubs an extension of what I do in the classroom.”

St. George graduated from Northport High School in 2000 and earned his teaching degree from Marymount Manhattan College. He was in Manhattan when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, and said the day instilled a passion in him to help his country.

“I had this sense that I really wanted to serve,” St. George said. Personal reasons held him back until 2009, when he enlisted in the United States Navy.

His first deployment to Afghanistan was in 2011. When he came home nine months later, he said he discovered that one of his former students from Northport High School had died of a heroin overdose, and his own brother Corey had started abusing opioid drugs.

A few months later, he lost his brother to an overdose from prescription medication, which “changed everything.”

St. George was honorably discharged from the navy after three years and returned to his job at Northport High School, where he became a co-advisor of SADD with Tammy Walsh, another Northport High School teacher.

“One of my colleagues asked me to run the club with her, and together, the club really expanded from three kids at a meeting to more than 50.”

St. George said he was able to get the club to take a more active role in Recovery, Awareness and Prevention Week.

“We felt that the drug epidemic was such a crisis that this club would be the perfect vehicle to help combat the issue,” St. George said. “Tammy and I are open and candid with the kids about our own history with this problem, and I think the kids are receptive to that kind of honesty.”

St. George said he finds working with SADD very fulfilling, and sees it as necessary. “Ultimately, my drive for getting involved is to do everything I can so that no family has to go through what my family did,” St. George said.

St. George and Walsh have been working on a SADD Summit, which they hope will help bring RAP Week-like programs to other schools on Long Island. He wants to change the culture in every school.

Aside from working with SADD, St. George is involved in another club in Northport High School called Project Vets.

He said this club has a two-pronged mission statement — to work with veterans and help them with the transition period once they come home.

“I am a vet, and I personally know many of my friends that have had difficulty transitioning back home,” St. George said. “But they are not looking for any handouts. This club explores how we can improve their transition period.”

Project Vets is only in its second year, and St. George said at the first meeting there was more than 60 students wanting to join.

Landmark Properties set to break ground next week

Two veterans and their families will soon be Sound Beach homeowners. Stock photo

For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living on Long Island, finding an affordable new home is the difference between remaining on the Island and leaving.

According to Mark Baisch, of Rocky Point-based Landmark Properties, many Long Island veterans cannot afford to purchase a home on the Island and are forced to move.

Baisch, alongside Commander Joseph Cognitore of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 of Rocky Point, is helping two veterans and their families live a little easier with the construction of two new homes on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach.

According to Cognitore the $250,000 homes are actually worth around $400,000. Basich said the properties could not exceed $250,000 in order for the vets to afford the property and mortgage rates. But, with the help of Suffolk County and the Long Island Housing Partnership, Baisch said the price of the properties could be reduced to $190,000 each.

“They’re getting a brand new Landmark house for it looks like possibly … a hundred plus thousand dollars less than market value,” Baisch said.

The reduced price allows veterans to get an affordable mortgage like the VA mortgage, which offers zero down payment.

According to Cognitore, he and his committee of veterans screen each candidate to determine the vet’s need for the home after the mortgage company approves them for a loan. The vets must also be first-time home buyers who make less than $200,000-$300,000 annually. The amount of years a vet served, the size of their family and whether they received awards for their service are determining factors. However, for Cognitore and his committee the hardest part is selecting the candidates.

“It’s a good opportunity for a couple of families,” Cognitore said. “Unfortunately, everybody that we interview deserves a home.”

Although this is not the first time Cognitore and Baisch are helping Long Island veterans, this is the first time Baisch is constructing the homes alone. Landmark Properties’ construction workers may start clearing the land this week, according to Baisch.

While a veteran with physical disabilities has not received one of the homes in the past, Baisch said he could tailor the home to the veteran’s needs. Cognitore hopes to select the veterans before Landmark Properties finishes construction.

“What happened in the past, we got all the candidates together and a lot of times they couldn’t wait to build the home,” Cognitore said regarding construction. “They didn’t know who the candidates were right away so they had to start building the home prior to the candidates being picked.”

Cognitore said they would reach out to previous candidates who did not receive a home and bring them up to speed with the process.

Regardless of the veterans who get the homes, both Cognitore and Baisch are happy to make a difference and help vets in need.

Cognitore said the lower cost of the homes “makes it affordable for them and they could just make it. That’s the kind of opportunities that we’re looking for.”

Baisch expressed similar thoughts.

“Every veteran that I’ve sold a house to has told me that if it weren’t for [the homes], they would have left Long Island,” Baisch said.

This version corrects a typo that misidentified a country where American veterans served overseas.

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Sgt. Bradford comes home to cheers and a hug from his family. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Sgt. Robert Bradford came home to a sea of red, white and blue last Friday afternoon, as local members of motorcycle charity Patriot Guard Riders lined Brookhaven Boulevard in Port Jefferson Station outside his home to welcome him and thank him for his service to the United States.

Sgt. Bradford comes home to cheers. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Sgt. Bradford comes home to cheers. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Bradford, 24, was returning after seven months in Afghanistan on his first deployment with the U.S. Army.

Terryville Fire Department trucks draped an American flag over Route 112 and set off sirens as the minivan Bradford rode in made its way down the street and turned onto his block. The roughly 15 members of the Patriot Guard Riders raised their own flags and stood at attention as the van entered the driveway of the Bradford family’s home.

When the soldier stepped out of the car, the guard erupted in cheers and claps and shouted, “Thank you for your service.”

Bradford showed his appreciation for the gesture, going up to each member to shake hands and share a hug.

“I appreciate all you guys,” he told the guard, before sharing a group hug with his family in the middle of the road.

His mother, Pat, said the Port Authority police escorted the family to the gate at LaGuardia Airport to meet the sergeant, and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker for everyone who wanted to greet him. The people “came in droves from everywhere,” she said.

When she saw her son again, “My heart was beating.” Asked to describe what it was like, the mother said, “Every good word in the book.”

Sgt. Bradford comes home to cheers. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Sgt. Bradford comes home to cheers. Photo by Elana Glowatz

She turned to Pete Jepson, an East Moriches resident leading the guard, and said, “I have my son home.”

According to Jepson, the welcoming group was made up of volunteers, some of whom are veterans. Local members of the national nonprofit Patriot Guard Riders attend similar homecoming events as well as funerals for fallen military members, first responders and veterans.

“We love doing it. It’s an honor for us to do it,” Jepson said.

Bradford, who is with the 338th Military Intelligence Battalion based in Shoreham, said everyone from his squad came back, which is good because “I wasn’t going to leave without all of them.”

He said, “It’s very exciting, overwhelming and weird” to be home. “It’s a whole different lifestyle.”

There’s not as much to worry about at home, he explained, adding with a laugh that the air is fresher on Long Island.

One thing that’s already different is that while he was overseas, he carried his rifle with him everywhere, including to the bathroom, to “chow” and to sleep. When he was on the plane to LaGuardia, he said, he fell asleep and when he woke up, someone’s phone rang and it sounded like “the alarm for incoming,” and he jumped and didn’t have his gun.

Bradford, who first enlisted in 2008 and re-enlisted on Veterans Day, said he is proud to serve his country.

“It’s nothing special that I did.”

Bailey brought comfort to personnel in Afghanistan

Bailey’s journey isn’t over yet, but she has found her home again after reuniting with Staff Sgt. Kevin Brady at the Save-A-Pet Animal Rescue and Adoption Center in Port Jefferson Station on July 4.

Fireworks popped in the distance as the Anatolian shepherd mix whined, wagged her tail and moved frantically around Brady, whom she had not seen in a couple of months.

The National Guardsman and his unit took in Bailey in the fall, when she was about eight weeks old. The dog had previously been tagging along with the Afghani army and the American unit quickly became attached to her. Brady, who recently finished his second tour, said she provided comfort to soldiers who were away from their kids, families and pets.

When the unit went back stateside, “Just leaving her there just didn’t seem right.”

That’s where the Guardians of Rescue came in. Dori Scofield, the group’s vice president as well as Save-A-Pet’s founder, said Brady contacted her three months ago about bringing Bailey to the United States. Guardians of Rescue, which rescues and finds homes for animals in need, raised $5,000 in nine days to help the soldier and “his battle buddy Bailey.”

Guardians of Rescue president Robert Misseri said Afghanistan can be a hostile environment for a dog, and when some people find a dog U.S. soldiers have left behind, they will kill it.

For all military personnel do for their country, “the least we can do is help them get their war buddy home,” Scofield said.

Staff Sgt. Kevin Brady is reunited with Bailey the dog, above, on Independence Day. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Staff Sgt. Kevin Brady is reunited with Bailey the dog, above, on Independence Day. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Nowzad, an organization that rescues dogs in Afghanistan, brought the dog to Kabul for her vaccinations and to get her spayed, she said. Bailey, who is now about 11 months old, made a stop at a kennel in Dubai before being shipped to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Scofield picked her up there on July 2.

“I walked into the cargo area and heard ‘Woof woof.’”

Scofield said Brady had been in constant contact with her and when she told him the dog was having a bath, he texted back, “She went from peasant to princess.”

Bailey waited at Save-A-Pet for a couple of days for her soldier to pick her up and take her with him on a road trip back to his home in Sacramento, Calif., where Brady has two sons.

The staff sergeant, who is still on active duty, is also a deputy sheriff in nearby Placer County.

Scofield said Bailey “loves everybody, but she’s looking for him.”

When Scofield brought Bailey outside to where Brady was waiting on the afternoon of July 4, she ran to her whistling friend and whined as he laughed and petted her.

“She got a lot bigger,” Brady said.

Bailey may have been unsure when she first went outside to be reunited with her buddy, Scofield said, but when Brady whistled to her, “you saw the light bulb go off in her head.”