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Joe Cognitore

Mary Ann Fox stands behind veteran Jack Grady, her proofreader and historical expert. Photo by Kyle Barr

It’s been little less than a year since Mary Ann Fox, of Leisure Glen in Ridge, finished her book of veterans in her own small community, titled “Proudly We Served.” 

There are a few hundred homes in the 55-and-older gated community of Leisure Glen,  and the stories of 63 veterans of that community lie within those pages, tales of both horror and heroism, of people who constantly and consistently told her they were proud to serve their country, hence the book’s title. 

The 63 veterans and their families from Leisure Glen in Ridge whose stories were published in a book by Mary Ann Fox.
Photo from Fox

In the time since the book was officially released last April, 325 copies have been printed, and Fox  has brought her books and those stories to local vets groups, schools, libraries and other civic-type groups.

But the time since her book’s release has also been heartbreaking. She has seen several of those men whose lives were memorialized in the pages of her book pass away.

On April 28, 2019, she held a ceremony in Leisure Glen that displayed her work to a packed room, including several elected officials. Just two months later, one of the vets, Andy Estrema, died. His story is one of the most harrowing described in the book. As a Marine during the Korean War, he fought in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where soldiers struggled against not only enemy machine guns but also a bitter cold that reached as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. He fought off waves of the enemy that struggled up the hill in the face of American machine gunners. He fought barefoot and lost all of his toes from frostbite. He was shot and injured during the battle in his lower back and only survived thanks to the men who fought alongside him.

Yet, Fox knew, this was the reason she wrote the book. The stories of those 63 veterans from Leisure Glen would, if not etched in stone, be forever contained in the glossy pages of her book. It would remain in the hands of the veterans’ families for as long as they could keep it.

“I felt very privileged,” she said. “They were sharing stories with me [that] some had not even shared with their family.”

She had been invited to Estrema’s military funeral, where she sat with the family as the ceremonial officers snapped the flag 13 times into a tight triangular fold. There, she said she could  not help but tear up knowing the honor she was witnessing for the first time, firsthand. 

Though it was the first military funeral she personally experienced, it wouldn’t be her last in the several months since her book was released.

That is the reality of the book she wrote, as she knows the stories contained within would outlast the men who told them. It has become a boon for the families whose loved ones have served, helping to prompt conversations about such events that they had rarely experienced before. Even during the writing process, Fox saw the effect that simply listening could have. 

“They were waiting for someone to say, ‘I know you served in World war II …’ [I say] you served your country, tell me what you did, tell me your story and let me weave it into a story of your service to the country,” she said. “I say ‘tell me what you want me to write.’”

The Writing Process

Fox never had it in mind to write a book such as this. Before retiring, she owned a travel agency in Middle Island. She retired and moved to North Carolina in 1998. After 12 years, when her husband passed, she decided to move back to Long Island to be closer to her daughter, picking a spot quite close to the center of Leisure Glen.

It was 2018, Memorial Day, and American Legion Post 352 held a meeting at the gated community that would etch the idea in Fox’s mind. 

“She heard our voices before our voices were stilled.”

— Jack Grady

The post commander said that one should get to know the stories of the veterans around them, because come Memorial Day next year, many would not be around any longer, their lives and stories taken by the march of time.

“He said, ‘Look at us, we get smaller in number every year, and we’re not going to be here forever.’” Fox recalled. “And then he finished by saying, ‘and you know what and nobody is going to know we were here.’”

It was the first time she had ever even thought about publishing a work such as that. 

Before writing the book, she said, like most people, she had no real idea just what it was to have gone through war. Listening to their stories, she said she could tell just what kind of person it requires to go through that experience. Some stories hit her hard, such as Estrema’s. He had written everything out himself, what ended up being five pages in her book. During their conversation, she had to excuse herself. 

“I went into the bathroom and I cried my heart out,” she said. “What they went through in this battle … he thoroughly believed that somewhere in battle, the blessed mother came to him — a very religious man, and he was until the day he died.”

With the massive number of interviews under her belt, with the piles and piles of notes on her desk, she quickly learned she needed somebody to help her unpack all the jargon and help her with grammar. That’s where Jack Grady came in, a 93-year-old World War II Army vet who also sees himself as an amateur military historian. Fox would drop off the pages to him, and then a day later he would call her back to give her the pages dotted with red pen marks and questions, asking her to go back and confirm some information with those fellow vets.

Before Fox, he said he had never been asked much about his own story. In his mind, it is mostly du to people’s desire to move on from such grave history.

“It was in the past,” Grady said. “The war was over, and of course we had Korea and, unfortunately, Vietnam, so World War II faded into [the] distance … it’s not that people were callous or anything, but they have their own concerns, and they don’t want to listen to these kinds of things unless somebody broaches the subject.” 

The elder veteran looks at the book now as a testament, a means to forever keep their stories alive.

“We’re gone, almost,” he said. “She heard our voices before our voices were stilled.”

If Fox couldn’t talk to the veterans themselves, such as several who had recently passed, she received their stories from their wives. She got to know the tales of so many vets, and in writing the book, many of those family members finally got to hear the story of their service. After doing the first stint of a two-day interview with Korean War veteran James Dragone, his daughter followed Fox outside, quickly wrapping her arms around her with tears in her eyes. Fox thought, at first, she must have done something wrong, asked the wrong question or said the wrong thing, but then the daughter started thanking her, saying it was the first time she heard that story of her father.

“Her contribution to her community has been very significant — it was a labor of love you rarely see.”

— Jane Bonner

Each of the stories tells not just of a man, but a man within a community. It speaks of their children and grandchildren, of men like Daniel Testa, a Korean War vet’s amazing homemade mozzarella. Dragone’s story says Leisure Glen members knew him as the Flag Man because “for 20 years he raised and lowered our flags daily.”

Why had they not talked about it before to their families? Fox said in many cases it was the past, and these men wanted to move on.

“The World War II men — they saw so much they wanted to put it behind them — they were still young men — and start their life,” Fox said. “The Korean War veterans — they, I think, pretty much felt the same … The Vietnam veterans, they came home wounded, mentally, physically, but mostly mentally.”

Of the three wars covered in the book, the Vietnam War section is the shortest. She thinks that was due to the war they fought, and the things they must have witnessed during the fighting, and most simply they were proud to serve.

“There’s a Vietnam veteran in there who has three Purple Hearts, and when I introduced him at the ceremony, the one thing he asked me to do was not mention that,” she said. “They’re not looking for any glory.”

Ceremony and Reaction

At last year’s ceremony, which finally displayed more than a year’s worth of effort, a packed crowd listened to the introduction of all service members included in the book. The ceremony was joined by Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and a representative from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-NY1) office. 

Little less than a year since then, Bonner said seeing all the work that went into such an event, and all the effort Fox put into the book, it was hard to come away not being dazzled by her efforts. 

“I was just so impressed by her passion to undertake something like this,” she said. “Her contribution to her community has been very significant — it was a labor of love you rarely see.”

The book is a coil-bound glossy print, with a cover designed by her daughter. The ceremony’s program cover was designed by Carl Schmidt, a 95-year-old World War II veteran who was Fox’s first interview.

The event was officiated by Monsignor Charles Fink, himself a Vietnam veteran and the author of the famous poem “Bury Me with Soldiers.” After all names were called, Fink was recognized for his service, and once Fox said the Catholic priest was a Purple Heart recipient, all men who could stand stood, and all applauded.

Fox has taken her book nearly everywhere it has been requested, including Comsewogue and North Shore public libraries, the Tesla Science Center, the Long Island State Veterans Home and Albert G. Prodell Middle School for their annual Living History Day last May. She said she plans to attend this year’s event and hopes to bring with her a veteran from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. She also hopes she may be able to start a letter-writing campaign between the students and veterans.

Last year at the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, she was also awarded a plaque for her work by the Town. 

“They were sharing stories with me [that] some had not even shared with their family.”

— Mary Ann Fox

Joe Cognitore, the Rocky Point VFW post commander, called Fox “a very dedicated woman.” She came to one of the VFW’s meetings last year with several of the vets described in her book, and a few even decided to become members of Post 6249. He had even seen her at the Long Island Veterans home, handing out ornaments to some of those living there.

“I couldn’t thank her enough for all her work of preserving veterans’ history, especially the World War II veterans,” Cognitore said. 

Before it was printed, two publishers were interested in the book, but the issue was it would have taken six to seven months for them to produce a finished product. For the veterans whose stories needed to be told, she knew she needed to print as soon as possible. Since April 2019, Estrema, Dragone and several other vets or their wives who provided the stories for the book have passed away. She knows she made the right choice, and she currently plans to keep it self-published with any additional printings.

Grady said Fox was one of the few people who could pull off a work like this, but of course, there are always more stories to tell.

“Most fellas don’t want to talk about those things, and it takes prodding to get the story done,” he said. “Mary Ann did 60, and I bet you she could do another 30 who didn’t answer the original ad.”

The VFW has asked if she could do a similar work for them, but she is still unsure since the men whom she wrote about in her book were from her own community, and it would be different venturing out to neighboring places. In Leisure Glen, newly arrived residents and others who did not originally respond to the first book requests have asked if they too could be included in later editions, and she said she is still trying to wrap her mind around what could be next. 

For now, she’s simply looking to spread the stories of the veterans, her friends, the members of her community. She hopes other people look to the veterans in their communities and look to learn their stories as well.

“To be honest, before the book, I didn’t really grasp the concept of what these men went through,” she said. “You have to sit across from them, you have to see it in their eyes, and it just comes pouring out.”

Nonprofit Accepts Grant Funds for Postage Costs

Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) talks with Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore while Greg Thompson, right, and Corrections Officer Robert Sorrentino, back, work to pack boxes for Operation Veronica. Photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County Corrections Officer Robert Sorrentino watched with awe last week as women older than he worked like machines on an assembly line and prepared care packages for troops as part of a volunteer group called Operation Veronica that works out of St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in Rocky Point. 

Corrections Officer Robert Sorrentino helps pack boxes at Operation Veronica. Photo by Kyle Barr

Sorrentino serves in the Air National Guard as a technical sergeant out of the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton and has routinely flown military aircraft in state and federal missions, supported space shuttle launches, flown in rescue missions with hurricanes Irma and Maria and was sent to Djibouti, Africa, during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2010. Still, he couldn’t help but be impressed by the group’s energy.

“It’s really efficient,” Sorrentino said. “I’ve been on the receiving end of getting care packages, and it’s awesome — its greatly appreciated.”

Multiple members of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, including Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr (D), visited Operation Veronica during its regular Friday meeting a few days after Veterans Day. Members of the department helped put together boxes of care packages, which can include snacks, toiletries or other personalized items that can give a little bit of comfort to men and women stationed overseas.

Nearly every Friday since 2005, close to 20 women spend several hours putting together care packages to send to troops stationed overseas. 

Janet Godfrey, a Wading River resident and founder of the group, explained to their visitors how they pack boxes under a certain weight to avoid excess postage fees. Volunteers also showed the sheriff’s department staff how they create survival bracelets out of 550 paracord, the same rope used for paratroopers during World War II, and polar fleece sweaters for soldiers out in deserts that may become freezing at night. 

Greg Thompson, a deputy sheriff who is currently a reservist machinery technician for the U.S. Coast Guard, was also impressed at the skill and attentiveness of the women at Operation Veronica.

“I think this is amazing, absolutely fantastic,” he said.

Toulon called the group extremely efficient in, “not only just the assembly line, but the coordination of the organization, and really it’s just the effort — to say to these vets we’re thinking about them, we’re caring for them and we’re praying for them.”

Sheriff Errol Toulon assists pack boxes at Operation Veronica. Photo by Kyle Barr

He expects the sheriff’s department to collaborate with Operation Veronica in the near future, by either donating goods or assisting in getting the boxes shipped abroad. 

In 2018 TBR News Media recognized Operation Veronica as one the newspaper’s People of the Year. Since then, Godfrey said the group has picked up steam and is still managing to send out hundreds of items week after week.

“We are busier than ever,” Godfrey said.

Funding is always difficult, especially in the shipping department, though the women of Operation Veronica often donate their time and buy their own goods to go in the boxes, as shipping can be upward of $70 for a heavier box.

“The women in this room come in to work, they do everything out of their own pockets,” she said. “They have passed the hat to pay postage at the end of the day.”

Godfrey had some good news, though. She said the Port Jefferson-based Richard & Mary Morrison Foundation has agreed to pay for the costs of shipping, which the Operation Veronica founder said can be as high as $10,000 to $12,000 a year. 

“They have promised to pay our postage however high it goes,” she added. 

For more information about Operation Veronica, visit www.operationveronica.org/.

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Rocky Point hosts a Veterans Day Event Nov. 11. Photo by Kyle Barr
Rocky Point hosts a Veterans Day Event Nov. 11. Photo by Kyle Barr

Following nearly a month of going to different schools in the area prior to Veterans Day, the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 held its annual ceremony Nov. 11 honoring those who’ve served, both those that are here and those no longer with us. They were joined by Rocky Point Boy Scout Troop 244.

“Veterans Day means much more than a federal holiday,” said post Commander Joe Cognitore. “It’s to make sure the men and women receive what they need.”

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The Rocky Point High School History Honors Society stand with Joe Cognitore along with a plaque commemorating the flag that now flies over the 9/11 Memorial in NYC. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Just recently, Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point spoke to the Rocky Point High School History Honors Society. He addressed the tragic attacks of 9/11, 18 years ago and an uncovered part of ground zero that was presented to this North Shore area.  

Cognitore recalled a past beautiful fall day, the afternoon of Oct. 4, when the Rocky Point school district held a major patriotic and remembrance ceremony only weeks after the terror attacks. It was the goal of this school district to remember and honor all of those national and local people that were impacted by these attacks. As Americans watched the rescue and recovery efforts in the city, they were reminded of a new war that was waged against the Taliban and al-Qaida some 19 days after Manhattan was hit by supporters of terrorism.  Those days saw a tremendous burden weighing on the minds of citizens, and this program presented a united front to support all of our Americans at home and abroad.

Local residents filled the bleachers of Rocky Point High School and in front of them was a Town of Brookhaven concert mobile. The VFW post marched in the colors and presented our flag to a crowd that was overcome with the memory of the four graduates that were killed from these attacks. The sounds of “God Bless America,” the armed forces music and “America the Beautiful” were played to the crowd. Veterans were invited to stand to represent different branches of the armed services that were all on alert during the earliest moments of the War on Terror. There were all of the local, state and federal government representatives, World War II veterans, and Boy Scouts that were all present on this day to present a dynamic unity.

This camaraderie resembled the same feelings that Americans felt when the Japanese  attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.  Flags were flown all over the nation and people stuck bumper stickers on their cars in support of the residents of New York City. People wrapped yellow ribbons around trees for those soldiers who going to be deployed. Cognitore and the other organizers of that event decided on a unique angle to demonstrate patriotism. Calverton-based Sky Dive Long Island planned to make a jump over the skies of this school with a large flag that would be seen well above the heads of the people. Only a few weeks before this jump, it was discovered under the debris of Lower Manhattan. It was originally flown outside of the World Trade Center and it was located by a volunteer recovery worker.

The plane took off from Calverton with jumpers Curt Kellinger, a Port Authority police officer and Ray Maynard. The crew made a memorable landing with a tattered yet historic flag that landed on the Rocky Point football field. Once the flag made it to the ground, it was presented to a representative of the Port Authority and brought back to the city. That year, it was flown over Yankee Stadium during the World Series, at Super Bowl XXXVI and at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Even as this flag was scarred from the attacks of 9/11, it showed the resilience of our country to quickly rebound and rebuild.  The flag that once was displayed at Post 6249 has a permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Today, millions of people have visited this well-known museum and they can see a flag that has strong roots of patriotism and remembrance to this North Shore community.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

The Rocky Point High School History Honors Society contributed to this story.

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Thousands gathered for the last summer concert Aug. 27., but the chamber was denied entry to promote Photo by Greg Catalano

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) and legislative challenger Gary Pollakusky have crossed swords over the final summer concert in Rocky Point Aug. 27.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker is running against Republican Gary Pollakusky to represent the 6th District. Photos by Alex Petroski

Members of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce said they were restricted from entering the concert venue, featuring Mike DelGuidice and Big Shot, to promote the chamber and their own businesses. Pollakusky is the executive director of the chamber, which was established last year.

Chamber members took to local Facebook groups to decry how they were allegedly treated, saying they were turned away by aides from Anker’s office. In a video posted to the chamber Facebook page, Pollakusky talked to Anker through an aide holding a phone, which had Anker saying she had already told the chamber president no, and said, “Police would be there if you are not off the premises in the next hour.”

Both legislative candidates have put the onus on the other for why the chamber was denied access.

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 is the main sponsors and promoter for the summer concert series alongside the Suffolk County Legislature. Post Commander Joe Cognitore said he had told the chamber members they were invited and had written a letter to that effect. 

The letter, dated July 22, invites the chamber to manage and invite business in the community to the summer concert series, reading, “In keeping with our commitment to our downtown revitalization grant we look forward to supporting our business community.”

In the past, local businesses have been allowed at the annual summer concerts.

“The only permission required was that of the event organizer.”

— Gary Pollakusky

He added the VFW post does not get involved in politics and runs the concert for the benefit of the veterans and community.

“We’re apolitical,” Cognitore said. “The chamber, civic, they meet at the post. I’m part of all of them because we’re involved in all parts of the community.”

Charles Todaro, the treasurer of the chamber, confirmed the letter dated July 22, which said it gave permission to the chamber to come set up tables at the event. When they arrived, he said, they were denied entry by Anker’s staff, along with the threat of calling the police.

Todaro said the grants that supplies funds for the concert series are meant to help promote shopping in local businesses. He called the reason they were denied access “political,” but said it wasn’t because Pollakusky is running against Anker.

“We are shocked and appalled by Sarah Anker’s political actions because the chamber had written permission from the concert holder to take part in the event,” Todaro said. “We had all the wheels in motion, and we got this very last minute threat not to come.”

While Cognitore confirmed he had given the letter to the chamber, Anker said she had not learned of such a letter until after the concert. She said her challenger had called last minute Monday, Aug. 26, the day before the concert, to say he and chamber members would be attending. She said she told Pollakusky no over the phone, it being too last minute and with thousands of attendants there would be no room for tables. She added she told him he and his chamber members could come as attendants rather than as vendors.

“We have the concerts to bring people to downtown Rocky Point, not so much to bring the vendors into the concert,” she said. “That’s following the grant requirements for the cultural omnibus funding that funds these concerts.”

Pollakusky said they received contact from the VFW the day before the event asking them to place a courtesy call to the legislator’s office. They received a call the next day at 12 p.m. saying they were not allowed inside.

“There’s been a precedent set for years for the North Brookhaven Chamber to attend, there’s also been a precedent set for businesses to attend,” the chamber president said. “The only permission required was that of the event organizer … I’m very disappointed that Sarah would use her office to prevent the chamber and other local businesses from taking part in a community event funded from taxpayer’s money.”

“We have the concerts to bring people to downtown Rocky Point, not so much to bring the vendors into the concert.”

— Sarah Anker

Anker said Pollakusky came to the concert grounds at St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in the early afternoon and that he “harassed my staff in a confrontational manner that I had to call police and church security.”

Pollakusky referred to the video posted to the chamber page regarding the chamber’s interactions with Anker’s staff. 

“Our community and our businesses were harmed,” he said.

Both political candidates accused the other of politicizing the situation.

Jennifer Dzvonar, who had been president of the North Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce before it disassembled in 2017, wrote on Facebook that her chamber had a table at each concert where then members were invited to attend. Dzvonar is now president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce. 

Anker said that while the North Brookhaven chamber had attended previous concerts, they were allowed a single table to advertise members and chamber events. The RPSB chamber was looking to set up multiple tables. She added that previously with the old chamber, details of how and where they would set their tables was established months in advance.

If anything, it’s a rocky start to the upcoming election season.

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The VFW, county government and the Mike DelGuidice-led Big Shot put on a massive concert for thousands Aug. 27. Photos by Greg Catalano

By Rich Acritelli

It was during this past week that classic rock could widely be heard throughout the North Shore. 

The Billy Joel “Big Shot” band that is led by local native Mike DelGuidice sang to a packed audience at Saint Anthony of Padua R.C. Church in Rocky Point Aug. 27. With almost 8,000 people on hand to watch the musical event, it was a great night enjoyed by all. For the last several years, Big Shot has been the main attraction of the summer concert series and a driving force of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars’ local efforts.

VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore speaks at the Aug. 27 concert.
Photos by Greg Catalano

For the entire day, veterans of this military post diligently worked to ensure that this production was enjoyed by the many residents of this community. This operation was organized by Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore with eighteen members of the veterans organization that helped set up tents, directed where chairs could be placed, the positioning of garbage cans and worked with the church to ensure the success of this night. Cognitore was pleased to be working with Reverend K.J. Augustine, a new addition to the parish of Saint Anthony’s. It was a united effort by members of the church, VFW, county officials and local leaders that all participated in making this night come alive. Cognitore was thankful for the guidance that Augustine demonstrated to bring various organizations together through a musical tradition that has flourished at Saint Anthony’s during the summer months.

Cognitore said he was delighted that everything came together for all of the people on the beautiful evening to hear the DelGuidice sing the hits of Billy Joel, Elton John and Aerosmith.  For well over twelve hours, members of Post 6249 were seen in their blue shirts selling raffle tickets, pointing people to their seats, dancing, all with big smiles on their face, excited to watch this event unfold in front of a packed house. Even as DelGuidice now calls Florida his home, this local kid recalled his roots with good-hearted banter with the crowd. 

Since this series was created under then county legislator Dan Losquadro and continued with the aid of his successor Sarah Anker (D-Mount Siani), DelGuidice has been the key event to end these shows on a high note. While the musician performs next to Joel through the longstanding franchise at Madison Square Garden, DelGuidice is a proud figure from Miller Place. The former resident has mastered the songs of Joel and has members of his band playing with Big Shot to round out this talented group. With cheers that could be heard up and down Route 25A and Main Street in Rocky Point, DelGuidice played for almost three hours. 

It is this music that resonates well with many people that can identify with the local lyrics and spirit of Joel mastered by DelGuidice.  Like that of Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellancamp, and Zac Brown, the combination of Joel and DelGuidice music will continue to stand the test of time and local residents will surely enjoy these shows for many years to come.

The VFW, county government and the Mike DelGuidice-led Big Shot put on a massive concert for thousands Aug. 27.
Photos by Greg Catalano

The importance of this concert series is that the local government and Cognitore are able to bring solid musicians to this area to present their multitude of talents. Instead of worrying about paying an expensive ticket price and traveling into the city, many people are able to come home from work and within minutes hear the unique voice of DelGuidice play some of the most memorable rock hits. This leisurely event allows people the opportunity to see an outstanding show that is free, close to home and they also observe the likes of Post 6249 work for the betterment of the North Shore.

One of the finest songs that DelGuidice sang on this night was “Good Night Saigon.”  Immediately, DelGuidice invited all of the veterans to be present on the stage and be next to him and his band. Much of this tribute was presented to the Vietnam Veterans that were led by Cognitore. He had tears in his eyes by the overwhelming applause from the crowd. Standing next to the post commander, they looked out to the crowd as they raised phones over their heads.nThey turned on their flashlights and cameras creating a clear path of light across the fields of Saint Anthony’s.  

Veterans, young and old were continually thanked by DelGuidice and his band for sacrificing for this nation. In an evening with many highlights, this one surely hit home for the members of Post 6249 and for those with history of defending this nation at home and abroad.

Already, Cognitore is looking forward to next year. He wanted to thank all of the political leaders, the church, officers of the Suffolk County Police Department of the 7th Precinct for their role in handling crowd control, parking, the traffic, and being a presence to ensure the safety of an audience of thousands.  

In honor of Memorial Day, Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park hosted its annual Parade of Flags, while VFW’s in Rocky Point and Sound Beach took the time May 27 to memorialize those servicemen and servicewomen lost throughout the years.

Joe Cognitore, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point, read the names of 204 people who have died in the service of the U.S., with each set of names said to the sound of a bell. He said the number of names he reads every Memorial Day grows every year.

Over in Sound Beach, the Sound Beach Civic, along with members of the Sound Beach Fire Department, hosted their own ceremony at the Sound Beach Veterans Memorial. Flags flew at half mast, but veterans of each branch of service, from the U.S. Military, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, helped raise each of the flags high to the bright, sunny sky. Members of the Miller Place Boy Scouts of America Troop 204 played an echo version of taps.

“Flowers, memorials and flags at half staff, and the sad notes of taps, as meaningful as they are, they are not enough,” Cognitore said. What we really must do to honor their sacrifice is to live what they died for.”

 

Town of Smithtown officials and St. James veterans give their respects at the rededication of the Vietnam War memorial Nov. 21, 2018. File Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

After a successful statewide lobbying campaign resulting in the restoration of nearly $4 million in funding for a veterans peer support program some have called vital, and given an additional $300,000 for expansion, New York State officials introduced bipartisan legislation April 22 to expand the program nationally. 

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) introduced the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act (H.R.1749), which would expand the peer-to-peer support program nationally for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological and physical traumas. The Dwyer bill was co-sponsored by NYS Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Peter King (R-Seaford) and others. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well.”

— Joe Cognitore

“Expanding nationally the Dwyer program, which is currently operating in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, eventually to all states in the U.S., will ensure that every veteran can have access to a peer-to-peer support group,” Zeldin said in a statement. “With the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] reporting that an estimated 22 veterans a day commit suicide, this national expansion is long overdue.”

This is the second time Zeldin has introduced legislation to expand the program nationally. Two years ago, the congressman proposed a bill that would authorize the VA to support veteran support programs modeled after the Dwyer project with federal grants. 

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, was in Albany with other veterans groups in March urging lawmakers to restore full funds for the Dwyer program, and he said the new bill is a great opportunity to expand these resources to other veterans throughout
the country. 

“The program has worked on a local level — it’s an amazing feeling to see that these peer-to- peer groups seems to be doing well,” he said.

The main goal of the Dwyer project, which is currently overseen by Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and Suffolk County United Veterans, is to provide peer-to-peer support and counseling to veterans who are facing challenges transitioning back to civilian life, along with offering a safe, supportive space for veterans to interact with one another. 

The commander of the VFW Post is glad the funds were restored as part of the executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and in April stopped by the office of state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) to thank him for his support for the Dwyer program. The veteran group presented the senator with a framed picture of the famous photograph of Dwyer helping an ailing Iraqi child. 

“I support anyone who supports veterans, it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or Democrat,” Cognitore said. “It is gratifying that we were able to do that, and we have officials that are doing the right thing.”

The program is named after Pfc. Joseph Dwyer, a Mount Sinai resident and U.S. Army combat medic who had served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home and struggling with PTSD, Dwyer succumbed to his condition in 2008.

Veterans Dan Guida, Gary Suzik and Joseph Cognitore during a visit to Rocky Point High School to commemorate Veterans Day. Photo by Rich Acritelli

By Rich Acritelli

This week marks the 63rd anniversary of the first Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1954, as declared by President Eisenhower, an annual remembrance of national service.

“On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom,” Eisenhower said.

Many North Shore residents have served at home and abroad to protect the freedom of the United States. Just recently, proud veterans from VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point were interviewed by members of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society about their years in uniform.

The first veteran to be interviewed was Gary Suzik, who is a resident of Rocky Point. The native of Michigan’s upper peninsula grew up playing football, hockey and downhill skiing and still has a touch of his Mid-western accent. He served in the U.S. Navy for four years and was stationed on the USS LaSalle, where he helped guide the landing craft. As it turned out, this was one of the last ships to be built locally at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. Suzik said he is immensely proud of his duty on a vessel that saw naval missions for more than 40 years in every corner of the world. The ship and crew even helped retrieve the Gemini capsule, a spacecraft carrying two astronauts, after it landed from an early space mission.

Suzik participated in operations in the Mediterranean Sea, where he visited ports in Italy and France. He was also deployed to Cuba and the Caribbean during the Dominican Civil War in 1965. It was common for this ship to carry about 400 sailors and 500 to 600 Marines who  utilized landing crafts to assault enemy forces in hot spots around the globe. Suzik mentioned how the ship had the honor of carrying Admiral John McCain Jr., who is the father of senator, noted Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war John McCain (R-Arizona). Veterans Day is a special moment for Suzik as he recalls not only his memories, but that of his father who fought during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and other family members who were also in the military.

Dan Guida grew up in Nassau County and currently lives in Wading River. His mother had nine brothers, of which seven served in the military during World War II. Since his youth, Guida said he learned the importance of national service from stories that were presented to him by his uncle. After high school, Guida was granted a temporary military deferment in order to attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, but a short time later, he decided to leave school and was drafted into the Army. With some college behind him, Guida was accepted into the Army Officer Candidate School and became a second lieutenant. Today around the post, many of the VFW members cheerfully refer to him as “Lieutenant Dan,” a reference to the film “Forrest Gump.”

From 1967 to 1968, Guida served in Vietnam with the I Corps. As an officer, he was responsible to direct tanks, armored personnel carriers and the trucks that operated within the northern areas of South Vietnam, not too far from Da Nang and the demilitarized zone. Guida recalled the tanks didn’t function well within the terrain of Vietnam through the heavy rains that saturated the grounds and made it difficult for American armor to gain enough traction in the mud. He shared interesting insights into the buildup to the war with the students.

Later, Guida utilized the GI Bill to attend Nassau Community College and Hofstra University, where he majored in accounting. He held a job as an accountant for a good part of his life and he still happily holds financial responsibilities today for Post 6249. The Wading River resident said Veterans Day is a moment that our citizens should be thankful for the sacrifices that past, present and future veterans have made toward the security of this nation. Guida said he saw that gratitude as he entered the high school before the interview. He had a big smile on his face when a younger Rocky Point student personally thanked him for his service.

Rocky Point resident and local commander of VFW Post 6249, Joseph Cognitore was also asked about his time in the service by the students. While Guida saw the earlier part of the war, Cognitore, who was drafted into the Army, endured the latter phase of fighting in Vietnam. From 1969 to 1970, he was a platoon sergeant that served in the air cavalry that transported soldiers by helicopters into various areas of the country. 

Cognitore was tasked to conduct “search and destroy” missions against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army who were situated in caves, tunnels, jungles and mountains. He also fought in Cambodia against an enemy that utilized the strength of the Ho Chi Minh trail to move troops and materials through the country to attack American and South Vietnamese forces.

Cognitore said it took a long time to put the war behind him. During the Gulf War in the early ’90s, he joined the VFW and rose to be its commander and to hold prominent leadership positions within the local, state and national levels of the organization. He said he is constantly reminded of his combat tours through injuries to his legs that have left him hobbling for years.

Cognitore views every day as Veterans Day. Each day he answers countless emails and telephone calls to help men and women that have served at home and abroad. Recently, Cognitore helped spearhead a golf outing that has raised over $200,000 to help the Wounded Warriors. One of the most important qualities the students were treated to during the interview was the camaraderie the veterans have toward each other, a dynamic likely strengthened by Post 6249’s daily mission of helping every veteran.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.