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Air National Guard

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A check is presented to Rebecca Briggs, second from left, the widow of Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, during a July 24 press conference in Hauppauge. Photo from Bellone's office

By Anthony Petriello

A Port Jefferson Station family received some comfort in the form of a fully paid off mortgage following the tragic death of their Air Force husband and father.

The family of Port Jefferson Station Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, 30, who was killed March 15 in a helicopter crash near the Syrian border in western Iraq, had the remaining balance on their mortgage paid off thanks to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation July 24.

Briggs’ wife, Rebecca, and two young children, Jayden and Ava, received a miracle in the form of an undisclosed payment in addition to $33,000 already donated by Caliber Home Loans toward the payoff.

“I just wanted to say thank you to Tunnel to Towers and Caliber Home Loans for doing this mortgage pay off, because it’s very comforting to know there’s people out there helping all the military families, Gold Star families, and it’s just nice to know that we can stay in our home,” the widow said to the media at the press conference.

Briggs’ family also received close to $46,000 as of Aug. 7, raised through a GoFundMe campaign launched by Andre Galarza, a close friend, former roommate and Riverhead High School classmate of Briggs’.

“I looked up to him very much, just because of the type of man he was — one of the realest people you’ll ever meet,” Galarza said in an interview in March. “As a person, he was one of the strongest people I know.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) recognized Briggs for his sacrifice in serving the country during the July 24 press conference in Hauppauge.

“Today we honored the family of a man, a husband, a father, a soldier and a hero who made the ultimate sacrifice to his country,” he said. “Technical Sergeant Briggs served us all and now it is we who must honor his service.”

Tunnel to Towers was established to honor the service and sacrifice of Brooklyn firefighter and Staten Island resident Stephen Siller, who died Sept. 11, 2001. The foundation “also honors our military and first responders who continue to make the supreme sacrifice of life and limb for our country,” according to its website.

All seven airmen on board were carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to the  U.S. Department of Defense. All seven military personnel onboard died in the crash of the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.

Briggs and three others aboard the aircraft — Capt. Andreas O’Keeffe, 37, of Center Moriches; Capt. Christopher Zanetis, 37, of Long Island City; and Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, 39, of Commack were members of the 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing out of Westhampton Beach’s Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base.

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Go Fund Me pages set up to aid future of Staff Sergeant Dashan Briggs' family

A helicopter crash in western Iraq hit close to home.

Port Jefferson Station Staff Sergeant Dashan Briggs was among those killed in the crash March 15. The 30-year-old was one of seven airmen on board carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, according to the United States Department of Defense. The DOD said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

Sergeant Dashan Briggs. Photo from 106th Rescue Wing Facebook

Briggs was one of four assigned to the National Air Guard 106th Rescue Wing at the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach on board the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter that crashed. He was a full-time military member with the wing and a special missions aviation flight engineer, according to a post on the Rescue Wing’s official Facebook page. Briggs was previously deployed to Afghanistan as a munitions system specialist with the 106th maintenance group, as well as to Texas and the Caribbean for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“I looked up to him very much, just because of the type of man he was — one of the realest people you’ll ever meet,” said Andre Galarza, a close friend, former roommate and Riverhead High School classmate of Briggs’ who set up a Go Fund Me page to raise money for his fallen friends’ widow Rebecca, 2-year-old son Jayden and 1-year-old daughter Ava. “As a person, he was one of the strongest people I know.”

Galarza called Briggs a warrior, a genuine friend always willing to offer a helping hand and a true leader. He said his goal in setting up the fundraiser, which collected nearly $12,000 as of midday March 19, was to help Briggs’ family with future expenses.

“I know with him being in the [Air National Guard], I’m sure they have a process of how they take care of the widow, but for me, I know folks always say, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help’ — I know deep down in my heart this is the right thing to do,” Galarza said.

“I looked up to him very much, just because of the type of man he was — one of the realest people you’ll ever meet.”

— Andre Galarza

Another fundraiser with a similar goal was established by Dusti Napolitano at the request of those who served with Briggs, including her husband, who is currently deployed in Iraq.

“He needs to be honored — he was an excellent man,” she said in a phone interview. “They want to make sure that his children have money available to them if they need anything that their dad would have otherwise provided for them in the future.”

Captain Michael O’Hagan, public affairs officer for the 106th Rescue Wing, said during a media briefing that at this time, the crash does not appear to be the result of enemy activity. Briggs’ body, along with the others in the crash, will be returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in the coming days ahead of burial with full military honors, O’Hagan said. He added that the wing has a team of professionals dedicated to helping the families through the grieving process.

“The 106th Rescue Wing specializes in worldwide personal recovery of pilots, military personnel and civilians by air, land and sea during combat and peacetime,” O’Hagan said. “First, on behalf of the men and women of the 106th Rescue Wing, and our extended family, I want to offer up our most sincere, deepest condolences for all those affected by this horrific tragedy, most especially, the loved ones and families of our fallen. Our hearts and prayers and support go out to them through this difficult time. This is where we live and serve. Our hearts are broken.”

“They want to make sure that his children have money available to them if they need anything that their dad would have otherwise provided for them in the future.”

— Dusti Napolitano

Captain Andreas O’Keeffe, 37, of Center Moriches; Captain Christopher Zanetis, 37, of Long Island City; and Master Sergeant Christopher Raguso, 39, of Commack were the others from the Rescue Wing involved in the fatal crash, according to the DOD. Master Sergeant William Posch, 36, of Indialantic, Florida, and Staff Sergeant Carl Enis, 31, of Tallahassee, Florida, both assigned to the Air Force Reserve 308th Rescue Squadron, also died in the crash.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) mourned the fallen service members in a statement.

“These fallen airmen are the best of who we are,” he said. “There are no words that fully describe the profound sorrow and immense gratitude that consume our community today. There are no words to describe the emptiness this loss leaves in the heart of every Long Islander. There is, however, no shortage of ways to describe these seven service members — selfless, heroes, patriots and everything we aspire to be as a people, as a nation and as Americans.”

Visit https://www.gofundme.com/in-loving-memory-of-dashan-briggs or https://www.youcaring.com/rebeccabriggs-1134709 to donate to Briggs’ family.

Jim and Katie Ford at Good Shepherd Hospice when Katie received a promotion. Photo from Good Shepherd Hospice

By Ernestine Franco

On June 15, at 12:57 p.m., Jim Ford’s Facebook post said, “The journey continues. I’m off to Good Shepherd Hospice later today.” Just three days later, Sound Beach lost one of its best and brightest lights.

James Francis Ford was born in the Bronx on Dec. 3, 1947. He attended William Howard Taft High School and in 1967 he enlisted in the Air Force, where he was a mechanic and worked maintaining airplane while stationed in Charleston, South Carolina. Ford and his wife, Nancy, initially moved to Bayport. Again on Dec. 3, but in 1976, they moved to Sound Beach.

Jim Ford was a member of the Sound Beach Fire Department, holding various different positions. Photo from the Sound Beach Fire Department
Jim Ford was a member of the Sound Beach Fire Department, holding various different positions. Photo from the Sound Beach Fire Department

In Bayport, Ford served in the fire department as lieutenant of the Hook and Ladder Company, so when his family moved to Sound Beach, it was only fitting he’d join the Sound Beach Fire Department. There he became a lieutenant and made his way up the ladder to attain the rank of captain of Engine Company 1, a position he was very proud to hold. Over the years he held many positions in the department, including lieutenant and captain of the Fire Police Squad, president of the department for five years. He served on numerous committees, and was a life member of the department as well as president of the benevolent fund.

For the past 10 years, Ford could no longer be a responding member of the department. “While in and out of hospitals,” his good friend and ex-Chief Bob Pulick said, “being on the inactive list didn’t stop Jim from still being of service.” In fact, Pulick said, “he was single-handedly responsible for about 75 percent of all the funds the department received each year.”

Ford’s commitment to the community was not only through the fire department. He was also very active in his church, St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach, where he was a Eucharistic minister and an usher. He also coordinated baptisms with his wife.

A valued member of the Sound Beach Civic Association, Jim is remembered fondly by the Civic president Bea Ruberto.

“In April, the Civic held a Vets Memorial lasagna dinner fundraiser.” Ruberto said. “Because of his health issues, Jim couldn’t eat the lasagna, but he bought a ticket, then brought his own dinner, because he wanted to show support for our vets.”

Jim Ford and his wife Nancy at a family wedding. Photo from from Nancy Ford
Jim Ford and his wife Nancy at a family wedding. Photo from from Nancy Ford

What will be remembered by most people, though, is not just all that he did, but who he was. Patty Pulick, a lifelong friend, remembers meeting the couple nearly 40 years ago.

“He had a great smile and laugh, and was always thinking of everyone else before himself, many times taking me to physical therapy whenever I needed a ride,” she said of Ford. “If I called their home wanting to speak to Nancy and Jim answered, he always said, ‘Hey you’ and I would laugh. He was a wonderful guy and I still can’t believe he is no longer with us.”

The Pulicks and the Fords enjoyed a special bond as parents. Katie and Danny Ford and Kim Pulick came from the same adoption agency in Korea — Katie and Kim within days of each other.

“I will miss our birthday lunches at such gourmet restaurants as Wendy’s, McDonald’s or George’s Kitchen,” Bob Pulick said.

Ford was very proud of his daughter Katie, who was a member of the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard. When he was already at Good Shepherd, Air Force officers came to his bedside to officially promote his daughter, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, to technical sergeant. With that promotion, Katie now outranked her father, to which Ford answered, “If I could get out of bed, I would salute you.”

Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) also fondly remembers Ford.

Nancy and Jim Ford, and their grandchildren Colin and Andy. Photo from Maureen Ford Chorma
Nancy and Jim Ford, and their grandchildren Colin and Andy. Photo from Maureen Ford Chorma

“I think I have one word that describes him,” Bonner said. “He was a gentleman. He was a warm, kind and funny person, with an upbeat attitude right to the end. I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone.” Bonner said she will miss getting a hug from him, something he did every time they saw each other.

Jim and Nancy Ford celebrated their 45th anniversary on May 22. Both very caring and loving people, they were well known for their humor. They had fun together. Nancy remembers her husband being called “the mayor of the fire department and the mayor of their block,” and Nancy said she now knows he is the “mayor in heaven.”

Jim was the beloved husband of Nancy; loving father of Maureen Chorma (Timothy), Kathleen and Daniel; adored grandfather of Andrew and Colin; and dear brother of Michael Ford, Mary Walsh and Kenneth Ford. A Mass of Christian burial was celebrated at St. Louis de Montfort R.C. Church in Sound Beach. Internment followed in Calverton National Cemetery. Donations may be made in his name to Good Shepherd Hospice, Hope House Ministries or the Grumman Memorial Park.

For one of two veteran families, receiving a new home is bittersweet.

Deborah “Dee” Bonacasa and her daughter Lilianna entered their new home on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach Monday morning as part of a new chapter, but it wasn’t without great grief because husband and father Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa wasn’t there to join them.

Following what was his fourth deployment to Afghanistan, Bonacasa, a Coram native, wanted to settle down, have a second child and buy the family’s first house with a Veterans Affairs home loan that the couple had been approved for.

But that was taken from them on Dec. 21 when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside Bagram Airfield in northwest Afghanistan, killing Bonacasa and five others in his New York Air National Guard Unit.

“My husband is not here to share this wonderful gift we’ve been given, but at the same time they fulfilled a dream that he’s always wanted to be able to do for our family,” said Bonacasa, who is also an Air Force veteran.

The widow said she was thankful for Landmark Properties owner Mark Baisch, Rocky Point’s VFW Post Commander Joe Cognitore and all of the other locals who have made the new home possible.

“Everybody has been supporting us since the beginning. I just want to thank everybody.”

The house, which would normally go for $350,000, was sold to Bonacasa for $200,000, Baisch said. He and his employees at Landmark Properties donated $50,000 to Bonacasa. The families got to pick out the flooring, fixtures and décor to help personalize the home, and Baisch even had a surprise for 5-year-old Lily, painting her room blue, her and her father’s favorite color.

“My husband is not here to share this wonderful gift we’ve been given, but at the same time they fulfilled a dream that he’s always wanted to be able to do for our family.” —Dee Bonacasa

The second house, just next door, was sold for $250,000 to Joshua and Megan Johnson. Joshua Johnson will have 14 years of military service this July. He too deployed four times, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait and is currently in the Air National Guard. Megan Johnson’s father and older brother are also in the Air National Guard, with her brother being in the Marine Core. Her husband, who the Sound Beach native met three years ago, works in the same base as them, and the two met during her friend’s going away part for deployment.

“We were awestruck,” Megan Johnson said of finding out they were chosen to receive the second house. “Then, when we found out we were going to be neighbors with an amazing family. We just felt so honored.”

Because of the lot’s size, existing town laws only permitted one house to built there, but county and Brookhaven officials agreed to allow two houses to go up for this cause. The neighbors did not object, but actually supported the idea, which Baisch said would not have been possible without the help of county and town governments, private industry and neighbors.

More than 30 subcontractors worked with Baisch, donating material and services to help construct the houses, furnish them and even gave contributions like store gift certificates and a new bicycle for Lily.

The community outpour of welcoming and support was also felt by the families, as over 100 people packed down the small street to say hello to their new neighbors, bring flowers and gifts and show their gratitude for all the families have sacrificed.

“I felt a little worried actually, because to see something happen like this, I couldn’t imagine it, so when it actually did happen to us I felt blessed and just amazed to have this opportunity,” Joshua Johnson said. “I couldn’t imagine it being this huge.”

Megan Johnson said there aren’t words that could adequately express her family’s gratitude and say thank you in the appropriate way, but said it’s been a humbling experience. And they hope to be able to pay it forward.

“To see the outpouring of love, support and generosity from such a small community, it hits it home,” Megan Johnson said. “This is where we’re meant to be and this is why. We still can’t believe that we’re getting our dream home in our dream place, and it feels so great to have all of these people supporting us.”