Tags Posts tagged with "Joe Cognitore"

Joe Cognitore

VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point hosts its annual Veterans Day service on Saturday, Nov. 11. Photo courtesy Joe Cognitore

By Aidan Johnson

As Veterans Day once again arrived on Nov. 11, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 in Rocky Point took the time to pay their respects to all those who have served in the military.

“As a veteran, I stand before you with a profound sense of pride, humility and gratitude,” said Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, in a speech to those in attendance. “I’ve been where many of you and our fellow service members have been, serving our great country with unwavering dedication, yet facing the many challenges that come with it.”

Cognitore made it a point to focus on the importance of Veterans Day not only from the perspective of being a veteran and VFW post member but also from “the collective duty we as U.S. citizens share in honoring our veterans and ensuring the truth and essence of this day is not forgotten.”

“Veterans Day isn’t really about acknowledging our service or expressing gratitude,” he continued. “It is about making Veterans Day a touchstone for understanding, education and appreciation for our Americans.”

“And I believe it’s our job as veterans to help ensure the true significance of this day isn’t lost in the noise of the [store] sales or everyday life,” he added.

Suffolk County Legislator Nick Caracappa (C-Selden) spoke at the event and expressed appreciation for the national holiday and the local veterans community.

“If you think about it, what these guys do, especially at this post, they are out in our communities every single day making a difference, as are many other posts,” he said in an interview. “All veterans continue to serve our communities and our country, so it’s only fitting that we recognize them and appreciate them and realize that they are out there on a daily basis.”

Cognitore mentioned upcoming events at the post, including the opening of the Suffolk County World War II and Military History Museum on Dec. 7 located at the former Rocky Point train station across the street from the VFW post, and a Christmas party on Dec. 9.

Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Cmdr. Joe Cognitore, left, and Suffolk County World War II and Military History Museum curator Rich Acritelli stand alongside the museum’s planned wall of honor. Photo by Raymond Janis

Long Island’s veterans will soon take center stage as organizers of a regional veterans museum put the finishing touches on the new complex.

Located at the former Rocky Point train station and across the street from the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 on King Road, the Suffolk County World War II and Military History Museum will open its doors to the public on Dec. 7. Museum organizers seek to tell the stories of local veterans across Long Island, putting their uniforms, combat equipment and records on public display.

Buildout of this museum commenced earlier this year and is now entering its final stretch. Nearing the finish line, organizers are calling upon the community for support. In readying the complex for its public launch, museum curator and post member Rich Acritelli said the post is still seeking donations of military memorabilia and equipment.

“If anybody has any equipment, web gear, old shovels, knives, canteens, helmets, binoculars, bayonets, rifles, any cold weather stuff or any older hats,” the museum will accept and display that memorabilia, he said.

Along with artifacts, the museum is also accepting display cases, shelves and mannequins to enhance its displays.

A centerpiece for the museum will be its military wall of honor, located along the exterior of the premises. Acritelli said that he hopes to display 250 names of local veterans by the museum’s grand opening ceremonies in December.

“We want people to scratch their heads, and that’s what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re scratching their heads and saying, ‘I have a cousin, an uncle, grandparents’” who served in the U.S. armed forces, “and we’re getting a multitude of families” submitting names.

Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, emphasized the museum as an extension of the VFW’s operations, designed as an education and outreach center to bring the region’s vets together.

“Learning is a never-ending process,” he said, adding that the envisioned complex prevents veteran combat experiences from “falling by the wayside.”

For local Scouts and students seeking community service hours, Cognitore added that the museum is welcoming assistance in its buildout, adding that this form of community service also fulfills the post’s mission of educating Long Island’s youth on the wartime experiences of local veterans. “We want them to dig in, look at the history and know some of the battles,” he added.

Throughout the process of creating the museum, both Cognitore and Acritelli agreed that the project has given rise to a burgeoning homegrown veterans network, connecting former service members around a new common cause. “We’re very busy, but it’s a good thing,” Acritelli noted.

To leverage this newfound connection, Cognitore said the post aims to become “a one-stop shopping VFW.”

“We’re going to get all walks of life through here,” the post commander added.

To donate to the museum or submit a name for the military wall of honor, email Acritelli at [email protected].

File photo by Raymond Janis

Preserving Long Island’s water starts with your vote

A recent article in Newsday described how the tourist industry is booming on Long Island and particularly in Suffolk County.

We have our farms, beaches, vineyards, state and national parks, museums, fishing and other water activities, theaters, music venues and, of course, a diversity of people. What underpins all of these things is the quality of our environment, especially water. Water that we drink, bathe in, cook in, swim, harvest and play in.

If we do not protect this resource, we will become known as the island surrounded by filthy water with contaminated drinking and bathing water that makes residents and visitors alike sick. All of this would not make for good tourism slogans.

If you want a healthy life and healthy economy, then be sure to vote, and vote for the candidates that pledge to protect this life-giving resource. Vote the Democratic line A and protect our beautiful island.

Deirdre Hensen

Miller Place

Democratic policies wrong for Suffolk

Suffolk County went red last year because Democrats running New York State have given us policies local voters found wholly unacceptable.

Incumbents, even long-serving ones, lost races because they didn’t grasp the sea change in priorities for county residents.

It began with a disgraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s [D] deadly mishandling of the COVID-19 public health emergency. In addition, the real-time results of Dem-endorsed cashless bail hit home when Suffolk suffered 399 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2022, and Officer Michael LaFauci miraculously survived a shooting from an alleged assailant, whose prior arrests should have kept him off the streets.

Proudly proclaiming New York state and its five boroughs “sanctuaries” has been a humanitarian disaster, a security risk and fiscal nightmare. The latter is sure to cost already-overburdened taxpayers a ton of money.

Even hardworking, productive people fleeing NYS in record numbers have not been a wakeup call for Democrats. None of these crises have been critical enough for Gov. Kathy Hochul [D] to call her one-party rule Legislature back to Albany. There remains no serious attempt to reverse their poor decisions regarding our high taxes, growing crime and flood of unvetted migrants.

On the contrary, they have candidates running on platforms pretty similar to the ones costing them elections less than a year ago.

Long-serving, former Assemblyman Steve Englebright [D-Setauket] has voted for cashless bail, remained mum on our sanctuary status and been part of the Dem bloc that got NYS rated as having the highest overall tax burden in the U.S.

As someone who’s had cordial, respectful conversations with Steve, this is not meant to be a personal attack. But, his endorsement by the Working Families Party is a clear indication they believe he remains in step with many of their far-left positions, which puts him out of step with the changing concerns of Suffolk voters.

Jim Soviero

East Setauket

School literature at Three Village school district and America’s legacy

Upon reading the letter about the book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” [“Challenging the assigned literature at Three Village school district,” The Village Times Herald, Oct. 19] I was wondering if the letter was written tongue in cheek. Our record of how we have treated Native Americans is absolutely horrendous.

To say, “With a few exceptions, we have been nothing but kind to the so-called Native Americans,” is a gross and inexcusable perversion of American history. Native Americans have been murdered, forced off their land, moved across the country, forced to live on reservations and assigned to the horrors of poverty and alcoholism.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony paid a bounty for Indian scalps. These are the same people who supposedly “broke bread” with Native Americans. The book referred to in the letter is a story of the life of one teenager and how being a Native American affected that life.

The book’s discussion is of the life of a teenager, similar in age to the juniors in our high school. Those juniors are 16 to 17 years old. This is not a manual for decadent behavior, but rather a story of what one Native American has lived through. These stories are known to our teenagers in their lives growing up in 21st century America.

Unfortunately, this letter distorts American history and shows little faith and understanding of America’s teenage population.

Stuart Bernstein


Distinguishing between opinions and prejudice

Regarding the letter, “Challenging the assigned literature at Three Village school district” [The Village Times Herald, Oct. 19], I am astonished that you would publish such an ignorant and bigoted letter, which was so off the wall I thought at first it was a joke.

We have a long, rich tradition of free speech in our country, which says that everyone is entitled to their opinion. But an opinion unsupported by evidence is a prejudice. And while people are entitled to their prejudices, you do not have to lend them legitimacy by printing unsupportable claims about how the Europeans treated the Native populace with mercy and kindness (Google the “Trail of Tears” sometime), or that 16- and 17-year-old high school juniors need to be protected from literature that might lead them to perform “decadent acts on themselves,” presumably meaning masturbation.

I’ve got a feeling the horse has long since left the barn on that one, which recalls the old joke: “99 out of 100 teenage boys admit to masturbating — and the other one is lying.”

People are allowed to believe all kinds of nonsense, but you are under no obligation to amplify and legitimize it.

Kenneth Wishnia

East Setauket

The case for transitioning Long Island’s homes from gas to electricity

The Oct. 19 article on Long Island’s opposition to the NYS natural gas ban [“NYS natural gas ban meets intense local opposition on Long Island,” TBR News Media website] details some potential issues predictably raised by those concerned about change or invested in the status quo, but some of these concerns don’t stand up and others are addressed in legislation passed by the Senate last year and which proponents are now urging Gov. Kathy Hochul [D] to include in her budget this year.

Breathing clean air inside our homes will be a significant benefit to everyone currently using gas, most especially our children.

Both LIPA and PSEG Long Island state that the present electrical system is quite adequate to handle minor additional loads from stoves and heat pumps, especially since winter loads are lower than summer loads.

Only about 1,100 new homes are built on all of Long Island each year, limiting the impact on job elimination. While plumbing demand will decrease when electricity replaces gas, the demand for electricians will rise.

Affordability is a critical consideration as we move forward in the energy transition, and the proposed NY Heat Act directly addresses the issue in two ways. The bill will cap energy bills at 6% of income for low- and middle-income families. In addition, the legislation would do away with the “100-foot rule,” which requires customers to pay for the extension of gas lines to buildings within 100 feet, regardless of need. Estimates state that the 100-foot rule could result in a savings of up to $75 per month on energy bills for low- and middle-income families.

Most importantly, the switch from gas to electric will dramatically improve indoor air quality, leading to improved health for NY residents. In the U.S., children living in a home with a gas stove have an increased risk of asthma by 42%. Chronic exposure is linked to cancer and heart disease.

“The levels of [indoor] air pollution can easily exceed health guidelines and would be considered illegal if they occurred outside,” Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, said. “These vapors quickly spread throughout our homes and in some cases raise bedroom benzene concentrations above acceptable health benchmarks for hours after the gas stove has been turned off.”

Both the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association have recognized the links among gas stoves, nitrogen dioxide pollution and increased respiratory illnesses in children, and have called for a transition away from gas stoves and toward electrification of home appliances.

Stuart Braman

Port Washington

Editor’s note: The writer is an adjunct research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

The importance of local restaurants

Why not patronize your neighborhood restaurants during Long Island Restaurant Week Oct. 25-Nov. 5 with a wide variety of lunch and dinner specials all year long.

My wife and I don’t mind occasionally paying a little more to help our favorite restaurants survive. Don’t forget your cook and server. We try to tip 20-25% against the total bill, including taxes. If it is an odd amount, we round up to the next dollar.

If we can afford to eat out, we can afford an extra dollar tip. When ordering take out, we always leave a dollar or two for the waiter or cook. It is appreciated.

The restaurant industry employs hosts, bartenders, waiters, busboys, cooks, cashiers and parking valets, wholesale food sellers, distributors and linen suppliers. There are also construction contractors who renovate or build new restaurants.

Our local entrepreneurs work long hours, pay taxes and provide local employment especially to students during the summer. 

If we don’t patronize our local restaurants, they don’t eat either. Why travel into Manhattan when we have so many great neighborhood restaurants in Centereach, Cold Spring Harbor, Commack, Hauppauge, Northport, Mount Sinai, Port Jefferson, Smithtown, Stony Brook and other nearby communities in Suffolk County from which to select.

Larry Penner

Great Neck

Supporting Chad Lennon for Suffolk

As a Vietnam War combat veteran with a Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star V Device and Air Medal, I am asking not only all veterans but all to vote for Chad Lennon for Suffolk County’s 6th Legislative District. 

Chad is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps and a proven leader. While serving in Afghanistan, he was wounded and received a Purple Heart. I can tell you firsthand that Chad is always assisting veterans and their families. He stands with our men and women in blue and will always back them.

He will be active in stopping drugs that are decimating our young generation as well as keeping environmental issues top of mind. Chad has proven himself as a leader and will bring that learned experience to the 6th Legislative District. Vote Chad Lennon.

Joe Cognitore

Sgt. 2/8th First Cav Air Mobile Recon

Rocky Point

Two incumbent Suffolk County legislators stifle democracy

As we approach Election Day, some incumbent Suffolk County legislators are counting on voters to have short memories. Three months ago, they voted against allowing you to vote on the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act.

This act was passed by the New York State Legislature earlier this year as part of the state budget. It’s the product of many years of delicate negotiations. It has overwhelming bipartisan support from Suffolk County state and congressional representatives, earmarking millions of dollars of New York State money for the benefit of Suffolk.

It also would mean additional millions of federal infrastructure dollars for Suffolk. It addresses, after decades of inaction, the underlying causes of the serious and worsening problems with water quality in our county, producing extensive algal blooms and fishkills in our lakes, harbors and estuaries, and growing nitrogen pollution of our aquifers.

In spite of all this, county Legislators Leslie Kennedy [R-Nesconset] and Trish Bergin [R-East Islip] voted to not allow this act to be put to the voters on the November ballot. Doing so, they effectively stymied it, since it requires voter approval to take effect.

They offered lame excuses for this, such as proposing to “fix” the act. They know this is bogus. The act, which allocates state money to our county, is state, not county legislation. There was griping about the 1/8 of 1% increase in the sales tax, which amounts to $50 on $40,000 of nonfood or clothing purchases in one year. Is that too much to finally deal with our water pollution problem?

Most likely, the real reason for blocking voters from approving or rejecting this act was to protect their own political fortunes, hoping that with it off the ballot voters who care about water quality won’t show up.

Which brings up the real issue: The flagrant arrogance of putting themselves above the people who elected them. If you oppose the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act, fine. You should be able to vote to reject it. If it’s rejected by the voters, that’s the way democracy works. The way democracy doesn’t work is by having politicians use their power to disallow voting.

Whatever your views on the act itself, you should vote for Denis Graziano or Derek Stein, who oppose Kennedy and Bergin, respectively, to send the message that politicians who use their power to block voters have no business representing them.

David Friedman

St. James


Museum organizers, standing outside the former Rocky Point train station, will soon put the stories of Long Island’s veterans on full display. From left, museum curator Rich Acritelli, VFW Post 6249 Cmdr. Joe Cognitore and museum committee member Frank Lombardi. Photos by Raymond Janis

The Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 is embarking on an ambitious quest to showcase the stories of Long Island’s veterans.

Organizers will launch a veterans museum on Dec. 7 at the site of the former Rocky Point train station, situated just across the street from the post’s headquarters at the intersection of Broadway and King Road.

‘It’s about giving back to the community and making positive impacts within the community.’

— Frank Lombardi

Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, said the planned museum represents an extension of the VFW’s programs and outreach initiatives.

The idea of erecting a veterans museum in Rocky Point has been decades in the making. Cognitore said the post unsuccessfully attempted to purchase a nearby drugstore before acquiring the former train station property through a community giveback from a neighboring developer.

The museum will serve to “educate the community, with an emphasis on young adults,” Cognitore said.

Rich Acritelli, a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College, has been performing the historical research and archival work for this project and will serve as museum curator upon its opening.

The post seeks to cast a wide net, Acritelli said, featuring the stories of veterans throughout the Island rather than narrowly tailoring the exhibits to the immediate locale.

“This is more of a broader” undertaking, he said. “It’s not just Rocky Point or Sound Beach. It can be East Hampton, Huntington, Wyandanch,” adding, “There aren’t too many places like this [museum]” on Long Island.

Inside the planned veterans museum in Rocky Point. From left, Frank Lombardi, Rich Acritelli and Joe Cognitore.

Acritelli said he plans to cover “every inch of this museum” with military equipment, historical relics, uniforms, collectibles, books and other memorabilia. Plans for rotating exhibits are also in the works.

Cognitore suggested that, within the broader national context, younger generations are gradually losing touch with American history. He said the post aims to regain that historical connection through this museum.

“We need to know that history,” he said.

Frank Lombardi, a member of the museum committee at Post 6249, envisions local veterans offering firsthand accounts of actual historical events, comparing and contrasting their recollections to popular fiction.

“If we showed a movie like ‘Platoon,’ you can show the movie, and then you can have some of the Vietnam veterans talk and say, ‘This is what it was really like, and these are the inaccuracies in the movie,’” he said.

For the museum’s organizers, each of whom has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, this endeavor represents the next iteration in their service.

Cognitore said the project is a necessary means for processing his wartime experiences and providing greater historical understanding to those who have not witnessed the brutality of war.

This bazooka will soon be on display along with military equipment, historical relics, uniforms, collectibles, books and other memorabilia.

“Working on this helps me free myself of all the things I did see or did do and kind of makes me happy to know that positive things are happening because of where I was and what I did,” the post commander said.

Acritelli said he regretted leaving the service because of the camaraderie shared among his compatriots. He said the museum and its collaboration has inspired similar feelings from his days in the military.

He maintains that Long Island’s vets are valuable primary sources in telling the local and national history.

“There are a lot of stories,” he said. “We want to make this into a large primary source.”

Lombardi remarked that he hoped the museum could inspire greater historical awareness and understanding of the realities of war while bringing community members together.

“It’s about giving back to the community and making positive impacts within the community,” Lombardi said. “We all grew up here locally on Long Island, and it’s important to recognize those who have come before you.”

Acritelli notes the active role that community members can play in preparing the museum for its launch date at the end of the year.

“We need people to donate things,” he said. “If they have basements and garages and old boxes full of stuff, they can give that to us or put it on loan,” adding, “We’ve got to build up some inventory.” 

Potential donors should contact Acritelli by email at [email protected].

The Rocky Point community celebrated Independence Day Tuesday, July 4, with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and public recognition of local veterans. Photos by Raymond Janis

Patriotism filled the morning air in Rocky Point on Tuesday, July 4, during a communitywide celebration of American independence.

Public officials, business leaders, Scouts and community members gathered outside Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 — at times braving gusts of rain — for a ceremony in honor of the 247th anniversary of American independence. The festivities combined a traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence with public recognition of the area’s veterans.

Above, Joe Cognitore, commander Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249, left, and Gary Pollakusky, president and executive director of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce

“Freedom is a gift given by all of those who fought for us,” said Gary Pollakusky, president and executive director of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce, which helped organize the event. “As we celebrate with our friends and family, we must express our thanks for feeling free to the men and women who made that possible.”

Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, performed the commemorative reading of the list of hometown heroes. Following this service, the post commander reinforced the value of reading the Declaration annually.

“Today, we celebrate 247 years of freedom and independence,” he said. “Let us remember that the true power of our nation lies in the unity and resilience of our people.”

“The VFW stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of our veterans and their dedication to our country,” he added. “Together, let us renew our commitment to supporting our veterans and bridging the gap between military service and civilian life.”

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) reflected upon the uniqueness of this annual tradition, noting the sizable and proud veteran population of northeastern Brookhaven.

From left: New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio; Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner; and Brookhaven Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico.

“I’m proud to represent this community because, trust me, the Declaration of Independence is probably not being read anywhere else today in Suffolk County or Nassau County,” she said. “So props to the people who made it happen.”

New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead) said the Declaration stands as a “reminder to everyone of how important it is that we have our freedoms and our liberties,” she said.

Bonner’s colleague on the Town Board, Deputy Supervisor Dan Panico (R-Manorville), used the occasion to reflect upon the historical significance of the American Revolution and the audacity of those who signed the document nearly two and half centuries ago, tying their contributions to those of American service members today.

“We offered law and logic to the rest of the world as to why we should be free,” the deputy supervisor said. “It’s our veterans — from the American Revolution through today — that have been there to ensure that this country … ensues and keeps on going forward.”

Above, Sound Beach Fire Department Chief William Rosasco, left, and 2nd Assistant Chief James McLoughlin Jr. present a memorial wreath. Photo by Raymond Janis

Community members, first responders and veterans groups gathered on Memorial Day, May 29, with services paying tribute to the fallen.

The Sound Beach Fire Department hosted its annual memorial service, recognizing the departed members. James McLoughlin Jr., 2nd assistant chief of the department, shared the meaning of the service and the importance of recognizing first responders who have laid down their lives in the line of duty.

“The death of these fine men and women merits recognition and honor by our department,” he said. “While we are saddened by their deaths, we also testify to their many contributions in making their communities a better place to live, and we pay tribute to their memory.”

In Rocky Point, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249 held a service honoring the departed members of the post and recognizing the sacrifices of American service members.

Members of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 with Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner and New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, above. Photo by Raymond Janis

Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, delivered an address to the many in attendance. He expressed his gratitude for those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, risking their own lives to protect the freedoms of others.

“As we stand together today, we are reminded of the true cost of freedom,” Cognitore said. “While we as a nation mourn the lives lost, we celebrate the lives and are forever grateful.”

He added, “In an attempt to pay back our debt as American citizens, we also must not only remember the fallen, but it is our responsibility to teach our youth that nothing comes without a cost and that sacrifices are meaningless without remembrance.”

Bea Ruberto, president of the Sound Beach Civic Association, during a Memorial Day service on Monday, May 29. Photo by Raymond Janis

Rounding off the ceremonies for the day, the Sound Beach Civic Association hosted a service at the Veterans Memorial Park, recognizing the hamlet’s fallen service members. Musical renditions were performed by members of the Rocky Point High School Music Department, with veterans of the U.S. armed services raising the flags of their chosen branches of service.

SBCA president Bea Ruberto reflected upon the motivations behind the annual service, calling the event a means to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

“Each year, we come together on this day and in this place to reflect upon their sacrifice and honor their memory,” she said.

At each of these events, memorial wreaths were placed as a symbolic tribute of thanks to the fallen.

Crew members on the USS Durham desperately bring Vietnamese refugees onboard. Photo from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

“Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”

— President Gerald Ford (R), April 23, 1975, on the collapse of South Vietnam

In one of the most unsettling moments in American history, April 30, 1975, marked the day when the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, effectively ending the Vietnam War. 

The fall

In 1973, President Richard Nixon (R) made peace with North Vietnam, withdrawing a once-massive military force and leaving behind about 5,000 staff, support and military security members to protect American expatriates still in the region.

It was a dangerous time to be an American. By 1975, the Communist regime in Hanoi understood the U.S. would not recommit forces to South Vietnam, an ill-fated government without American support. 

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies moved swiftly, penetrating South Vietnam’s cities and villages. Americans watched in disbelief as South Vietnamese cities fell, one after another. 

While Nixon had warned that the U.S. would oppose any breach of the peace, Ford refused to redeploy soldiers and resources to South Vietnam. With over 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, he believed his nation had had enough.

From the end of World War II to 1975, America was tied to this Southeast Asian state both militarily and diplomatically. Now, all was lost.

Over 7,000 people were flown out of Saigon before it collapsed. Under enemy fire, helicopters quickly ferried out American personnel and refugees. The last helicopters containing the staff members of the U.S. Embassy watched as North Vietnamese convoys entered Saigon.

Heroes forgotten

It was a painful time for this country. Torn apart by years of strife, political unrest, economic instability and Watergate, the fall of Vietnam was the final stroke. Vietnam War veterans — to this day — endure the pain of heavy scrutiny for their efforts. 

Ridiculed, mocked and belittled at the time for their participation in the war, they are determined to ensure that American service members who have fought since are treated with dignity and respect. 

Joe Cognitore witnessed these final stages of fighting, recalling the fall of Saigon as a “dark” chapter. He served in Vietnam from 1970-71 as a platoon sergeant, leading other air cavalrymen through the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. 

With the presence of the Viet Cong always near, he guided his soldiers through “search and destroy” missions against an enemy that lurked in underground tunnels, exercised frequent jungle ambushes and persisted through massive bombing raids.

Despite the traumas of war, in some ways it was even worse when the soldiers came home. The nation showed little appreciation for their sacrifices.

Paying tribute

For years, Cognitore hustled as a representative for Coca-Cola, then raised a family in Rocky Point. It was only during the First Gulf War of 1990-91 that he became involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, offering support to veterans returning from war.

Today, Cognitore serves as commander of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, advocating for the over 200,000 Vietnam War vets across New York state. He represents a class of veterans continually working to aid those who have fought in past and present conflicts.

These individuals work untiringly, helping to honor the veterans who fought the Global War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan by organizing care packages, welcoming ceremonies and golf outings to support U.S. veterans and their families. Such devoted people do what they can to carry on the tradition of honoring veterans.

This past Memorial Day, Monday, community members were able to emulate this compassionate example.

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

Members of VFW Post 6249 pose with Post Commander Joe Cognitore and Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner, sixth and seventh from right, respectively, during the second annual Joseph P. Dwyer Memorial 5K race on Sunday, May 21. Photo by Sofia Levorchick

By Sofia Levorchick

At the starting line, the “Star Spangled Banner” played over the loudspeaker, evoking a solemn patriotic atmosphere. Veterans removed their service hats and saluted as they gazed upon an American flag rippling spectacularly beneath the May sky. All applauded and cheered as the runners took their marks. 

The countdown began, and at exactly 12 p.m. an announcer called out, “Go!” A large group of racers took off, darting toward a three-mile stretch of concrete, asphalt and pine barrens.

The Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 hosted its second annual Joseph P. Dwyer Memorial 5K race on Sunday, May 21, recognizing veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and highlighting veterans’ issues in Suffolk County. 

The race was held in collaboration with the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, a peer-to-peer support program for veterans experiencing PTSD and traumatic brain injury. 

A Mount Sinai native, Joseph P. Dwyer had served in Iraq. After returning from the war, he suffered from PTSD — a mental health condition triggered by trauma that causes symptoms such as flashbacks, anxiety and emotional distress. He died from an accidental overdose in 2008.

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) reflected upon Dwyer’s legacy and the symbolism of his statue, situated on the corner of Broadway and Route 25A in the Rocky Point Veterans Memorial Square. 

“The statue’s prominence is important because it brings awareness to PTSD every day,” Bonner said, adding, “The run was born from that prominence of the statue.”

All 62 counties across New York State participate in the Dwyer Project, raising awareness for mental health and promoting the well-being of American veterans. Melanie Corinne, the Suffolk County Dwyer Project’s coordinator and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, described the program’s mission as “making sure other veterans don’t slip through the cracks with efforts to support veterans, active duty service members and their families in their wellness goals with the help of trained veteran peers.”

A family participates during the event. Photo courtesy Joe Cognitore

This year’s 5K race, held again at Rocky Point High School, was one such effort to boost public awareness and funds for veterans with PTSD, asking participants for a $25 to $35 donation. 

Veterans from Post 6249 also attended the race — some as spectators, some volunteers and some runners.

Frank Asselta, one of the organizers of this race, served as a medic during the Vietnam War and has been involved with the Rocky Point VFW for five years. He emphasized the organization’s considerable local following and success at fundraising for veteran causes. “The VFW has found support from thousands of people across Long Island,” he said.

Joe Cognitore, commander of Post 6249, said the VFW launched this annual tradition “for participants to have a great day and to reinforce everyone — veterans, teachers, students, community members — who have PTSD, spreading awareness and keeping that awareness alive.” 

And the event had participants and veterans across the community smiling while they congregated with those around them on a radiantly sunny May day, exceeding last year’s turnout.

Shannon O’Neill, one of over 100 runners and walkers who participated in this event, described herself as a woman devoted to serving veterans in the community. O’Neill, who works with military and veteran students at Suffolk County Community College, was motivated to run in this event because “no one on Long Island does more for veterans than the VFW in Rocky Point,” she said. “I wanted to support their initiatives so that they can continue to give back to veterans who are so deserving and so in need. It’s really such a great cause.”

Many volunteers helped out, performing duties such as registering runners, handing out race bibs and offering refreshments as they cheered the runners on.

Rocky Point High School student Travis Pousson finished first, crossing the finish line in just 19 minutes.

Post member Pat, a veteran and former Cold War-era spy for the United States, spoke fondly about the 5K event, calling it “a worthy cause for men suffering from PTSD, and they need all the help they can get.” He also reminisced on his memories at the VFW, expressing that the VFW has “created a brotherhood, and every member in it is very community-minded.”

Ultimately, the race not only brought recognition to veterans with PTSD but also served as a powerful reminder of the profound impact American service members have had on society.

“I think that so many of the guys in the VFW never got their welcome home and never got their thank yous,” O’Neill said. “This is our opportunity to make sure that they are seen and acknowledged for their time and service because they always continue to give back.”

She added, “These guys never stop serving — they’re still serving today, so this is our opportunity to give back and to serve in our own way.”

Above, Lily Bonacasa, daughter of American war hero Louis Bonacasa, holding her father’s portrait. Photo courtesy Deborah Bonacasa

Deborah and Lily Bonacasa are a mother-and-daughter team who have distributed thousands of toys to needy children over the last three years during the Christmas season. 

When Lily was a second grader, she sat on Santa’s lap as he asked what she wanted for Christmas. She said she only wanted to help children who were less fortunate, those who couldn’t receive gifts. Knowing her story, Santa began to weep.

Deborah and Lily live in Sound Beach. But Deborah grew up in Lemoore, California. After graduating high school, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to a base in Utah. As an information manager, she provided networking and computer support to 75th Air Base Wing members. While in uniform, she met her future husband Louis.

Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa

Louis Bonacasa was a local kid. He graduated from Newfield High School in 2002. Deborah described Louis as someone “who demonstrated a boundless amount of energy toward playing baseball, being with his friends, hiking, shooting and demonstrating humor amongst his loved ones.”  

In high school, Louis watched the attacks of 9/11. It inspired a love of country and a commitment to serve, and he soon entered active duty in the Air Force. Louis quickly rose through the ranks, presented with accolades for his devoted duty to the nation. Louis soon reenlisted as a security forces member of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach. He then transferred to Stewart Air National Guard Base 105th Airlift Wing in Newburgh where he deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar.  

Seven years ago, on Dec. 21, 2015, Louis was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Louis was working as a tactical security element truck commander, tasked with the dangerous job of gathering intelligence on the operations of the enemy outside of this major air base. His assignment was hazardous, as he was often the “eyes” of Bagram to protect it from the enemy. 

On patrol, Louis was approached by a suicide-bomber motorcyclist. To protect his men, Louis positioned himself between this adversary and his comrades, and he was killed with five of his soldiers.

Louis is honored with several sites by local and state governments to remember his ultimate military sacrifice. On Rocky Point Yaphank Road toward Middle Island, a major thoroughfare connecting the North and South shores was named in his honor. For travelers on the Long Island Expressway, they are reminded of the memory of Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa on the bridge that connects the northern and southern service roads on Yaphank Avenue. 

Above, members of Lily’s Toy House during a gift donation event in Rocky Point Saturday, Dec. 3. Photo by Raymond Janis

Lily’s Toy House

In 2016, Mark Baisch of Landmark Properties and Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Cmdr. Joe Cognitore presented Deborah and Lily with a new $350,000 home in Sound Beach that was sold to the Bonacasa family for less than $200,000, according to CBS New York.

Deborah was thankful for the altruism shown to her family during that highly delicate moment. After Lily spoke to Santa Claus, Deborah believed it was time to pay it forward. 

Deborah spoke of her desire never to want to turn down families that are unable to purchase gifts. The Bonacasas have created two nonprofits, Lily’s Toy House and the SSgt Louis Bonacasa Memorial Fund. Working with Long Island Helping Hands, they target needy families.  

In 2020, Lily was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on the “Today” show. Lily presented a brilliant smile and spoke to America about her goals in helping other children have a lovely Christmas.

The holiday demand has grown due to COVID-19 pressures and rising inflation. Three years ago, there were about 1,000 donated toys collected. Today Lily’s Toy House has distributed over 3,000. Deborah hopes to expand this program to accommodate families across this state and region, especially to military families. 

Lily is a sixth grader at Rocky Point Middle School, where she is a well-rounded student, determined to help others. As a young lady who lost her father, she can speak to others about handling adversity at an early age.  

Reactions from the community

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) has followed firsthand the efforts of the Bonacasa family. “Staff Sergeant Bonacasa gave his life for his country, so we can all live free,” Bonner said. “Deborah and Lily have honored his service so meaningfully with their annual toy drive.”

The councilwoman added, “Lily is a remarkable young girl, who faced a great loss, decided to follow in her father’s footsteps by helping others. The community appreciates all that Deborah and Lily do to bring joy to children in need.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said he is reminded of Louis every time he drives to the Riverhead Correctional Facility. The county sheriff appreciates Lily’s thoughtful spirit and compassion. 

Lily is an “inspiration to all of us, despite losing her father at a young age while he protected Americans in Afghanistan,” he said. “She was still able to think of others before herself, and her dedication to ensure that those most in need have a wonderful Christmas through Lily’s Toy House reminds all Suffolk residents of the true meaning of Christmas.”

Above, Lily Bonacasa. Photo courtesy Deborah Bonacasa

First Lt. John Fernandez, of Rocky Point, is in awe of the patriotic spirit that Lily inspires. “What does it mean to give?” he said. “Staff Sergeant Louis Bonacasa did not lose his life for our country. He gave it heroically for his family and nation. Despite his family’s unfathomable sacrifice, his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Lily, found the strength to continue to give by donating toys to children during the holidays and those who continue to serve today. This shows a depth of courage and love that should be emulated.”

Cognitore described the immense cost the family paid in defense of the nation, calling the support toward the family mortgage “not a handout, but rather a hand up.” He reflected on the positive work the family has done since. 

“It has been a wonderful experience to see Lily speak at veterans and charitable events,” the post commander said. “There is no price that could be attached to the valuable community initiatives that both mother and daughter perform for our citizens during the last several Christmas holidays.”   

James Moeller, Lily’s middle school principal, said he is amazed by her fortitude. “Lily is a hardworking and quiet girl who is always willing to help her teachers and classmates,” he said. “On a regular basis, she is a positive young lady who always wears a big smile on her face. It’s no surprise that Lily is a driving force behind this wonderful toy drive that her family continually organizes.”

Through her charitable endeavors, Lily continues to follow in her father’s footsteps by sharing love and generosity toward others during Christmas. 

For adding light and joy into the lives of others and for honoring her dad’s legacy, TBR News Media recognizes Lily Bonacasa as a 2022 Person of the Year.

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

At the site of the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Memorial in Rocky Point Aug. 5, veterans, public officials and community members joined U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), the Republican nominee in this year’s New York gubernatorial contest, to champion legislation that would expand peer-to-peer veteran support services nationwide.

The PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Memorial in Rocky Point, the site of this press event.

The Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, initiated in 2012 by Zeldin when he was a state senator, is a peer-to-peer program that assists veterans through support groups and other resources. The program is designed to promote mental health and alleviate the challenges of those affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

“As I travel around Suffolk County for years, I have had countless veterans tell me that because of the Dwyer program, they are alive, they have a job and they have a family,” Zeldin said. “They credit the support that they have gotten from the Dwyer program for their ability to be able to cope with the mental wounds of war.”

Zeldin credited the success of the Dwyer project to its design, which was tailored to meet the needs of veterans. The peer-to-peer setting, moderated by veterans trained to lead discussions around personal and highly sensitive matters, offers a unique venue for vets to open up to those who are best equipped to understand them.

Zeldin is sponsoring legislation — H.R.1476 PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Program Act — that would make these services accessible for veterans nationwide.

“The Dwyer program needs to be expanded nationally,” the congressman said. “To the [other 534] members of Congress … please do everything you can to co-sponsor this bill.” He added, “Get educated on what peer support should be all about and let’s get this over the finish line and passed into law.”

Zeldin was joined by a host of veterans leaders and public officials representing various levels of government. His efforts to expand the Dwyer program were backed by Joe Cognitore, commander of the VFW Post 6249, based in Rocky Point. Cognitore discussed the lasting effects of combat and the difficulties that veterans encounter when they return from active duty.

Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249, discusses the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder

“Post-traumatic stress affects all of us,” the post commander said. “The statue you see behind us was put up this past year and it represents the post-traumatic stress that we all go through — not just veterans but all walks of life.”

State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead) expressed support for the bill as well. She emphasized the uniqueness of the peer support offerings through the Dwyer program.

“Nobody knows the devil and the demons more than veterans,” she said. “Today, New York State has $7.7 million in its budget this year for this program, but it’s not enough,” adding, “I am here at Congressman Zeldin’s plea … to acknowledge our veterans and realize what they need in order to be successful and reintegrate into life after coming home.”

State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Riverhead), at podium, on why the Dwyer program should be expanded nationally

State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) spoke of the success of the Dwyer program locally and the need to bring the program onto the national stage.

“It makes so much sense now to see the success of the program,” he said. “It’s something that should have existed for many, many years, but this is the sort of effort that you need to get those ideas … to ultimately come to fruition and then to show the success that we have seen.”

Suffolk County Legislator Nick Caracappa (C-Selden), the majority leader in the Legislature, shared how the Dwyer program supports those in the community. Caracappa, who also chairs the county veterans committee, stressed that veterans issues are human issues that need to be met with human solutions.

“These are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters … these are our family members,” Caracappa said. “I’m proud to say that this project is a product of Suffolk County.” Due to its success locally, Caracappa advocated “bringing this forward on a national level.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) offered her support for the proposed legislation 

Also on hand was Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), who was instrumental in helping the town secure the land where the Dwyer memorial now resides. [See TBR News Media story, “Students, elected officials reflect on new Dwyer statue” (Jan. 21, 2021)].

Bonner spoke of the hidden wounds of war. “Not all war injuries are visible,” she said. “So it’s incumbent upon us to do everything that we can do as citizens and residents to make sure that this legislation is passed federally.”

Following the press conference, Zeldin was asked what he would do to relieve the plight of veteran homelessness if elected as governor. He highlighted the need to improve outreach initiatives and bring down any barriers that may impede those efforts.

“Outreach to the homeless, outreach to people who are struggling with mental health issues, is not just about what you say to them, but also about being able to listen to people in need and hear those stories,” the Republican gubernatorial nominee said. “If there’s any type of red tape that’s preventing those conversations, then that red tape needs to get torn down.”