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Long Island State Veterans Home

The Long Island State Veterans Home commemorated the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion with a special service and the presentation of Proclamations of Meritorious Achievement to two Normandy Invasion veterans on June 6.

New York State and Suffolk County awarded Proclamations of Meritorious Achievement to 100-year-old U.S. Army veteran Frank Agoglia and 102-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps veteran David Wolman, both residents of the Long Island State Veterans Home.

Agoglia, who landed his glider in Ste. Mere Eglise, France, behind German defenses, and Wolman, who worked 72 hours straight as an air traffic controller during the Normandy invasion, were recognized for their heroic service during D-Day and Operation Overlord.

A candle-lighting ceremony honored the 150,000 Allied troops who landed on the beaches of Normandy, all service members who served during World War II, the 41 million men and women who have worn the uniform in defense of freedom, the more than 600,000 members of the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and the current 2 million members of the

“For over 33 years, the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University has had the honor and privilege to have cared for this special generation of veterans,” Executive Director Fred Sganga said. “We will never forget the service and selfless sacrifice of so many soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. Today, we thank all of our World War II veterans for their fortitude and perseverance eighty years ago – for answering the call, in order to make the world a safer place. World War II veterans set high standards for bravery and courage and passed the baton to later generations of servicemen and servicewomen, who met the challenge by continuing to defend America and her allies around the world to this day.”

On July 25, Legislator Stephanie Bontempi (R – 18th L.D.) recognized Trisha Northover, pictured with her son Tristan, as this year’s Women Veterans Appreciation Day honoree for the 18th District. Photo from Leg. Bontempi's office

By Rita J. Egan

One local veteran has come a long way since she left Afghanistan, and she credits the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the local American Legion Post and her nursing career for her success.

U.S. Army veteran Trisha Northover spent her younger years traveling between her dad’s home in Kingston, Jamaica, and her mom’s in Greenlawn after her parents’ divorce. She said in her early 20s, a friend’s father, a firefighter, died on Sept. 11, and the effect that his passing had on her friend helped Northover find her passion.

Photo from Trisha Northover

“I saw the impact that it had in her life,” the veteran said. “She became a totally different person after she lost her dad, and I wanted to do something.”

At 24, she joined the army. Interested in a medical career, Northover said she learned everything she needed to know about medicine in the military. Initially, she studied basic EMT skills and then nursing. After 18 months of training, she became a licensed practical nurse.

She spent nine years and nine months in the army, primarily stationed at West Point, where she had her son Tristan, now 16. Working at the academy’s hospital and clinic, she cared for the cadets. 

Northover was deployed to Afghanistan for 10 months as a combat medic during Operation Enduring Freedom, and she said she witnessed back-to-back traumas during her deployment. For her service, she has received a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, NATO Medal and Army Commendation Medal. For her unit’s service in Afghanistan, they received a Meritorious Unit Commendation award.

​American Legion

When she returned to Greenlawn, Northover said she learned firsthand how helpful American Legion Post 1244 members are. Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Northover said it took some time to find a full-time job.

“I didn’t have a lot of support financially,” the veteran said. “I was still figuring it out.”

Northover added post members brought her and her son Thanksgiving dinner the first year she returned from Afghanistan. She soon became a post member, and recently, the 42-year-old was named post commander.

Being involved in a post and talking to fellow veterans who have had similar experiences is vital, Northover said. She described it as “a camaraderie like no other.” 

Photo from Trisha Northover

“We’re all being pulled in a million directions, but spending time in the company of the members of my posts, working for them, doing different things, it gives me a sense of purpose, and it honors my service if that makes sense,” she said. “It gives me an outlet for my service because a lot of times when you come back, you feel like you’re not a part of a team anymore, and being in the American Legion absolutely gives me the feeling of being a member of a team and working toward a mission.”

With her membership in the American Legion post and her job as a licensed practical nurse at the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University, Northover has the opportunity to meet older vets. She said she always does her best to take photos and converse with them. She always thanks them for their service, especially World War II vets.

“These men are living history,” she said. “We study the war in the history books, and so much in the world literally changed because of that war, and to be with the men who were fighting — they’re leaving us. They’re not going to be here forever.”

While she still experiences tremendous anxiety, which made working at other jobs difficult at times, she said the veterans home has been a supportive place to work as they understand her PTSD.

Getting help

In addition to being able to talk with fellow vets at the American Legion and at her job, Northover credits Veterans Affairs for helping her manage her disorder with different types of therapy, from talk therapy to acupuncture. The disorder, she said, is a result of her time in Afghanistan.

“It was something that I’ve had to really work on to be able to not only talk about, but to not feel a certain way when I even talk about it,” Northover said.

She added the post-traumatic growth she has gone through has made her more resilient. “I know that I survived that so there’s not much that I can’t overcome,” the vet said.

Northover said the VA has realized traditional treatments aren’t for everybody, and patients can receive treatment outside of the VA hospital, including equine therapy and working with service animals.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that they can change the quality of their life,” she said. “We can’t necessarily not have PTSD or not have insomnia or the trauma, but you can get to a point in your life where you can live a life that’s still full and purposeful if you really just accept the help that is offered.”

Validation

At the end of July, Northover was among fellow women veterans recognized at the Suffolk County Legislature’s General Meeting in Hauppauge. She said she was honored and humbled.

Trisha Northover and Leg. Stephanie Bontempi

“These women have done so many wonderful things not only in their personal and military lives but for their community, so it was really great to be honored,” she said. 

Northover discovered she was chosen when a member of Suffolk County Legislator Stephanie Bontempi’s (R-Centerport) staff emailed her. Northover was nominated by Mary Flatley, a fellow American Legion Post 1244 member and a former recipient of the same county honor. 

Flatley described Northover as a fantastic person with many great ideas for the post. “She’s a very grounded person and selfless,” she said. “I’m happy she’s our commander.”

She added, “I think Trisha is going to prove herself as an outstanding leader.”

In a statement, Leg. Bontempi said, “When I learned about Trisha’s accomplishments as a soldier and her dedication to helping her fellow veterans, I knew she had to be this year’s honoree. Trisha served our country with distinction, and to this day she is making a difference in many lives.”

Northover said it’s an honor when people thank her for her service, and the recognition from the county made her feel that her service was validated even further. 

“I had to reconcile a lot of things, and if it was worth it, within my own self, to go through what I went through in terms of the war,” the veteran said. “Having moments like this have really reinforced to me that people are really grateful and thankful that I did what I did because I fought for freedom and America.”

Public officials gathered before a room of vets at the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University for a Memorial Day service Friday, May 27.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) gave the keynote address for the event. He continued the theme raised during his State of the County address a week earlier, invoking the example of the Greatest Generation as a model for Americans today.

“I can’t help but think that it’s just at the moment when we see our World War II veterans unfortunately slowly, but inevitably, fade into history, that 80 years later we now see war raging in Europe,” he said. “It’s so important that we never forget what they did.”

For Bellone, American veterans should be honored not only for their service abroad but for the work they perform for communities after they return from the battlefield. 

“It’s what veterans always do — they come home after fighting for our country and they build and they strengthen our community,” the county executive said, adding, “To all our veterans who have served, you all have picked up the baton of service. From the Revolutionary War right up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American veterans have served and have sacrificed.”

Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) was also in attendance. Saying that he was inspired by Bellone’s address, the councilmember commented on the need for policymakers to temper their power to wage war and monitor their decisions that threaten peace. 

Without memory of the great global conflicts of the 20th century, leaders today may be less cautious in their use of force.

“Maybe people now who are making decisions, who didn’t live through it, maybe they don’t have the same reluctance to engage in war and the same urgency to avoid it,” Kornreich said. “Especially right now, with all of the conflicts that are going on, that’s a very good lesson. I can’t think of a better way to honor the memory of those who have died in war than to try to fight for peace.”

— Photos courtesy of Long Island State Veterans Home

By Rich Acritelli

Kindness, devotion, hard work, and determination; these are the words to describe the loyalty that the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook has toward its patients. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made their mission immensely difficult, this facility is carrying out its responsibilities to support our local veterans at this nursing home. This staff has adapted to the hardships of this virus, and they are finding different ways of helping many elderly veterans who have served in practically every military branch.

The vets home has created a multi-faceted program that helps people from Riverhead to Massapequa. Leading the way is Jean Brand, the Program Director of the Adult Day Health Care Program, with their efforts based in Stony Brook and in the homes of these older populations who rely on the services.  Even before the coronavirus changed operations, staff members have provided assistance in cooking, bathing and nutritional aid that allows for breakfast and lunch to be served along with taking home a meals for dinner. They also provided rehabilitation for physical and speech therapy programs. As the veterans ages range from the mid 60’s to over 100 years old, the staff’s devotion also allows the older counterparts to take a brief break in handling the rigors of treating their loved ones.  

From the start of the day, the state nursing home provides transportation to bring citizens that served from World War II, Korean and Vietnam to Stony Brook. Due to this current pandemic, the programs are now more home based. Although these were necessary changes, according to Brand, the organization is finding new ways to help these older citizens. Through a home delivery program, several meals a week are organized and distributed to the elderly. Brand and her staff are currently preparing food that is non-perishable and easy to eat. Deliveries also include necessary items that have been difficult to purchase such as toilet paper, masks, wipes, paper towels and soap. They have also sent home word puzzles and and other games to help keep their minds sharp and to pass the time, as many of these veterans that are spending numerous hours in their houses.

With many longterm relationships built up at Stony Brook, the staff misses these familiar faces and their stories of service of defending our nation during many trying times. Many of these men and women are considered family members to the staff. The entire staff, through expertise and professionalism, has for many years attended to the many diverse needs of these men and women. They have implemented telehealth to boost morale and at the same time to safely utilize social distancing initiatives to keep a watchful eye on the health of their patients. Although sending home food is a primary function of this program, many of these telephone calls are keeping the lines of communication open, and range from a simple hello to necessary inquiries about serious ailments.

Brand spoke about a unique program that was created to connect the patriotic stories of national service to the students of today. The Long Island Museum has worked with the vets home through a pen pal project which has younger men and women reach out to veterans to learn about their lives. Even as this has been tough period, this idea has developed relationships between different generations. Young people have seen and heard the examples of service by our senior population. This writing programs has also allowed younger students to identify the various issues that impacted the mobility and health concerns that have widely plagued older populations. 

Not since the days of the 1918 Spanish Flu has our nation had to handle a health crisis of this magnitude.  The numbers of the people that have been impacted are still staggering, but the efforts of places like the Long Island State Veterans Home continue to adapt and overcome many of these medical challenges that still pose a major concern to this country. This homecare program has completely shown the determination of longtime staff members like that of Brand and her fellow workers to help their patients before, during and after this sickness is finally subdued.

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

Stony Brook University's COVID-19 testing site. Photo by Matthew Niegocki

With 694 more people testing positive for the coronavirus, the number of confirmed cases in Suffolk County is now 40,483.

In the Suffolk County hotspot testing sites, the number of positive tests was 1,320 out of 3,412 total tests.

The percentage of positive tests at these hotspots is 38.7, compared with 33 percent for the county as a whole.

Antibody testing for law enforcement continues, with 1,581 law enforcement officers tested by Northwell Health and New York State so far.

The number of people who have died from complications related to coronavirus increased by 21 in the last day, bringing the total to 1,568 for Suffolk County. As of yesterday, the deaths from the virus exceed the number of people killed over 100 years ago aboard the Titanic. The staggering number represents what will likely be a turning point for the county, let alone the entire country which topped 77,000 deaths.

County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office distributed another 163,000 pieces of personal protective equipment yesterday, bringing the total number of such life-saving items to over four million since the crisis began in March.

Bellone didn’t have the closely watched hospitalization information today because the reporting system was down.

Separately, Bellone said the county was able to honor the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

“Today, we would normally be bringing together our veterans and particularly our World War II veterans to honor them and thank them for what they did for our nation,” said Bellone during his daily call with reporters.

A group including Suffolk County Chief of Police Stuart Cameron and Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency Director Thomas Ronayne raised an American flag above Armed Forces Plaza today. The group saluted the flag and then brought it to the state veteran’s home.

That home has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. As of May 5, the home reported 65 residents have passed away due to the coronavirus. Additionally, 68 residents have tested positive, where out of those four are receiving treatment at neighboring Stony Brook University Hospital. 30 of those veterans are in the post-COVID recovery phase.

Bellone said the county also celebrated the graduation of 70 members of the police academy. While the ceremony was different than it otherwise would have been prior to the pandemic, the event, which was broadcast on Facebook, was watched by more than 25,000 people.

“Their willingness to step forward at any given moment to risk their lives for strangers is an extraordinary thing,” Bellone said. “We thanked them and their family members.”

Separately, as for the national and local elections coming this November, Bellone said he hopes the bipartisan cooperation that has characterized the response in Suffolk County and New York will continue.

“I don’t know if we’re going to see that on a national level [but] at the local level, we are working together in ways we haven’t in many years, maybe not since 9/11,” Bellone said. “That’s what we should do.”

Bellone suggested the county didn’t have “time to spare to worry about partisan nonsense.”

He pointed out how he and Comptroller John M. Kennedy Jr. (R), who ran against Bellone to become county executive, have been “working closely together to address issues here. I’m hopeful that will continue.”

Stony Brook Closes Satellite ER

Stony Brook University is closing the emergency room field satellite in the South P Lot amid a decline in the number of patients.

The hospital will keep equipment inside the tents in case of future need. The health care workers who had been staffing the field site will return to the hospital.

Stony Brook had seen approximately 2,600 patients at the coronavirus triage sites.

The drive-through testing site in the South P Lot will remain open. That site has tested 27,515 patients.

Residents who would like a test need to make appointments in advance, by calling 888-364-3065. The site is open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Stony Brook University Hospital’s Team Lavender, and a Staff Support Team, delivered care packages to the employees at the Long Island State Veterans Home. The team put together 170 containers filled with donated items from the community including gum, chapsticks, drinks and snacks. They also included trays of home-baked goods, crocheted ear savers, and masks made by a veteran.

Team Lavender volunteers include doctors, nurses, social workers, patient advocates, chaplains, a faculty and staff care team, employee assistance program and employee health program. The team provides emotional, spiritual and psychological support for faculty and staff after an adverse or unexpected event.

Team Lavender completed a successful pilot during the last year in the NICU and maternity units. Team Lavender has worked together with the Staff Support Team to provide hospital wide support. Their efforts, previously performed in-person, are now available virtually for faculty and staff.

The Long Island Museum (LIM) has recently partnered with the Long Island State Veterans Home (LISVH) at Stony Brook University for a letter writing project. 

In conjunction with the Museum’s At Home With LIM projects, a series of online family art and history activities based on the museum’s collection, historic buildings and grounds, the Student/Veteran Pen Pal Project takes young people on a journey through the art and history of penmanship in the 19th century.

Long Island students from kindergarten through 12th grade are invited to participate and are asked to follow the instructions from the printable activity guide that can be downloaded from the museum’s website. 

The penmanship lesson teaches students how to write a letter, preferably in Spencerian script, to one of the veterans by using the greeting “Dear Veteran” and sharing with them what school is like today, and asking them what school had been like for them.

“In the 1800s there was no such thing as email, phones, or FaceTime. The main way people were able to communicate with others who didn’t live near them was to write letters,” said Lisa Unander, Director of Education at the LIM. 

“During these difficult times, the LIM believes in the power of the arts to unite us. The Student/Veteran Pen Pal Project allows for children to connect with veterans who are in need of connection and support while they are socially isolated because of the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

Once the letter is written, it can be either scanned or photographed and then sent to [email protected], and [email protected]. The LISVH will then print out the letters and distribute them, and the veteran pen pal can respond to the student by a letter sent through email as well.

“The project is a wonderful collaboration between the registrants in the Adult Day Health Care program at the Veterans Home and local community school children,” said Jean Brand, Program Director of Adult Day Health Care at the LISVH. “The heartfelt letters are a fun educational bridge that celebrate the best of who we are as a community. During this time of social distancing the project creates relationships that inspire the human spirit.” 

The Student/Veteran Pen Pal Project is currently ongoing and the activity guide will remain on the Museum’s website as the LIM remains closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information on this project or other At Home with LIM projects visit www.longislandmuseum.org.

LI State Veterans Home has gone through much hardship since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Image from Google Maps

By Rich Acritelli

“Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Fred Sganga, right, hands a plaque to Battle of the Bulge veteran Tom Struminski at an event last year. File photo by Kyle Barr

These words of heroic national service by Winston Churchill Aug. 20, 1940, have been surely witnessed by U.S. citizens since the start of the COVID-19 health crisis. Feeling immensely proud of his staff and echoing these powerful sentiments is Executive Director Fred Sganga of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook. He stated just how thankful and proud he was of his 675 employees who have done everything possible to treat the veterans of this facility. From the moment that this virus hit the nation, these health care workers and support staff are on the front lines to ensure that this nursing home has taken care of their patients through the terrible rise of COVID-19.   

Currently, there are five New York State Veterans Homes that are facing staggering difficulties since the initial spread of the virus. While this pandemic has impacted all age groups, older generations are the most susceptible from being impacted by the ferocity of this sickness. For over 19 years, Sganga has led the vets home through many difficult moments, but it’s possible this scenario could be the most challenging point of his career. On March 10, Sganga ordered the complete lockdown of operations the nursing home, restricting access from the outside. Looking at the website of this hospital, it has been a transparent effort by Sganga and his staff to speak about the daunting issues that has faced both the workers and residents of the veteran’s home.

Covered in protective gear from head to toe, masks and shields, the staff has been working in hazardous conditions to treat veterans who have greatly sacrificed for this nation. Sganga said he is incredibly proud of his faculty’s ability to not only take care for their patients, but to serve as surrogate family members. For over 40 days, many of these residents have not seen their loved ones and the doctors, nurses, aides, housekeeping and maintenance cadre have engaged these older men and women with a consistent foundation of love and support.  

One of the biggest concerns that Sganga’s staff must handle with the patients who are already battling serious ailments and respiratory problems. The sickness has impacted the COVID units of this nursing home with 57 residents to date that have tested positive. Sganga identifies how this hospital has dealt with the positive cases by not allowing cross contamination between the various health care units. He considers this a deadly “chess game” where he’s made to use every possible strategy to contain the expansion of the virus within the hospital. 

These heavy health strains on the elderly population are apparent as the vets facility, which as of press time has lost 41 people, according to Sganga. While this is a tumultuous time, Sganga has continually stressed the determination of his staff to show up to work every day and to help those men and women residents that have sacrificed for the defense of the nation. Like that of the families, these staff members grieve at the loss of residents that they have grown to known through many special bonds. They have had to adapt to the many unknowns of the virus and decipher through the multitudes of guidance coming from the state and federal government. And through the spirit of cooperation amongst the team, every person plays an important role in carrying out these policies to protect the residents during these harrowing times. 

Much can also be said about the wonderful job that Sganga has done during his tenure at this home for almost two decades. Vietnam vet and Rocky Point VFW Post Commander Joe Cognitore said, “Sganga demonstrates the highest traits that a leader of any major organization can exhibit to lead and care for others. During the height of this crisis, he has the pulse of every staff member and the people that reside in this home. He is a self-starter and a delegator of plans to properly guard against this massive epidemic. Words are not enough to express his strength as a decisive figure to always assist others.  These sentiments are presented through my experiences as a patient that was flawlessly treated by this hospital. His spirit is easily seen through the endearing qualities of all his personnel that are always motivated to do their duty.”

Once this tragic virus began to escalate in widespread positive cases and deaths, the vets home has followed many directives from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, New York Department of Health, the Veterans Administration and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Almost every day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) speaks at daily press conferences outlining the risks of the elderly in the nursing homes and the devoted care in places like that of Stony Brook that has continually met their growing needs. 

Presently, there are over 45,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S., with New York making up a third of these figures by nearly 15,000. Out of these numbers, experts say nearly a fifth of virus deaths have come from nursing facilities, and the fear is that more could to be taken from the brutality of the virus. Right now, there are health care workers and patients that have deteriorated quickly and passed away without any major signs of this sickness. 

Until recently, there were not enough testing kits for nursing homes like that of the Long Island State Veterans Home to even test their own workers. Cuomo recently stated that the goal of New York was to start testing 40,000 people every day, but there are many workers that were unable to know if they were safe from this virus. Through the entire interview, Sganga could not thank his staff enough for the absolute determination of his colleagues to stay the course in helping the elderly fight this illness. It has been a hard time for this staff, but they never shied away from their ultimate mission of protecting these men and women that sacrificed greatly for this nation. According to Cognitore, “even during the darkest moments of this crisis, Sganga’s employees and volunteers have diligently worked above and beyond the call of duty to protect the veterans against this uphill medical war to defeat the ongoing spread of COVID-19.” 

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

Signs outside the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook share thanks to the people working inside the vets home. Seven veterans have died as of April 8 due to complications caused by COVID-19. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr, Leah Chiappino and David Luces

For the elders along the North Shore, those living in communities and places built for people living out their late or twilight years, the coronavirus has sewn both devastation and concern. State data now shows that the virus has made a huge impact on nursing homes, more so in Suffolk than most other New York counties.

Signs outside the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook share thanks to the people working inside the vets home. Seven veterans have died as of April 8 due to complications caused by COVID-19. Photo by Kyle Barr

Data from New York State as of April 12 showed close to 20 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 came from nursing homes or other adult care facilities — 1,979 of a total of just over 10,000. An additional 459 deaths have come from adult care facilities.

Suffolk County has seen 141 deaths from people in nursing homes and 95 from those living in assisted living places. That is out of the 568 who had perished from the disease as of Monday. The latest number of deaths, as of press time Wednesday, April 15, was 653.

It’s a staggering number that displays Suffolk has a higher percentage of elder deaths compared to surrounding counties, such as Nassau which has a total of 261 fatalities out of 910 as of Monday.

This is also considering in late March, New York officials mandated nursing homes must accept stable or recently discharged-COVID-19 cases into their facilities, partially as an effort to not overload the health system and give these elders places to live when many have nowhere else to go.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said they had no clear information on why nearly half of all COVID-19 deaths were related to nursing homes or adult care facilities. County officials have said, upon analysis, these homes have implemented all state and county rules correctly.

The county executive added that upon review, the virus was shown to have been inside Suffolk before testing became ubiquitous and before all the calls for social distancing were in place. 

“If the virus was here, and people are going into nursing homes, workers coming in and out — you put those two things together and you’re going to have the kind of numbers that you see here,” he said. “It’s tragic and it’s devastating. This is one of those things why testing early on was important and could have helped to save lives.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) also said he was concerned with the numbers released about nursing homes.

The Long Island State Veterans Home released a letter April 8 saying that, at that time, seven veterans have died due to the coronavirus as a comorbidity. Forty vets had tested positive for coronavirus, where 35 were still living in the home and another five were being treated at Stony Brook hospital. Fourteen employees also tested positive for the virus and were recuperating at home.

“Each of these veterans answered the call to serve our great nation with honor and dignity to protect the freedoms we all enjoy today as Americans,” the letter read. “Our staff is grieving the loss of these beloved members of the LISVH community.”

Peconic Landing, a nursing home in Riverhead, has already reported nine deaths as well.

Leisure Glen in Ridge, a 55-and-older gated community, have stopped virtually all community activities during the ongoing pandemic. The housing market has also drastically slowed in the community. Photo from Google maps

After numbers related to elder deaths during the pandemic were released, the AARP put out a release detailing questions people should put to nursing homes during the pandemic, including if the home is at full staff, and how many people have tested positive for COVID-19.

“New Yorkers need to communicate with their loved ones in nursing homes on a regular basis and to be aware if the virus is present in the facility.” said AARP New York State Director Beth Finkel in the release.

With so many nursing homes locked down during the pandemic, many were not willing to share much about the numbers of people in their facility, either staff or residents, who had become sick. Still, both Bristal Assisted Living, with locations around Long Island, and the 55+ community Vistas at Port Jefferson are offering virtual tours during the pandemic.

A representative from the Smithtown Center For Rehabilitation and Nursing Care said they have barred visitors since March 9, in compliance with state guidelines. In order to keep families connected, the facility sends out email blasts and has social workers and nursing staff call family members for updates. According to itswebsite, they are also scheduling times for residents to video chat with loved ones. 

It’s not only the nursing homes that are struggling. For communities who mainly house older residents, the virus has been just as disruptive, perhaps even more so than an average neighborhood.

The 646 homes in Leisure Glen, a 55-and-older gated community in Ridge, have also felt the pressure of the ongoing pandemic. Ed Marczak, the homeowner association president at Leisure Glen, said they have been complying with guidelines on social distancing and have cancelled all community events and activities, along with the clubhouse.

“My wife and I haven’t had much contact with neighbors or others,” Marczak said. “If it’s nice out we’ll see some people out, but everybody is trying to be 6 feet apart.”

The real estate sector of the community has also slowed down, with those in the middle of closing or selling homes now having to hold off until an unknown date arrives.

Laura Ruhnke, lead broker at Leisure Living Realty, said before the pandemic, they were experiencing a strong market, but not anymore. Virtual home tours are an option for the group,but it could be tricky as some clients may not be as tech savvy. 

”Business has drastically slowed down since the outbreak,” she said.

A Walmart customer donates to Stan Feltman’s fundraising efforts for fellow veterans. Photo by Rita J. Egan

On a recent December morning, while many shoppers rushed into the Middle Island Walmart to take care of some holiday shopping, others paused in the vestibule to throw some money in a bucket.

The container sat in a shopping cart filled with articles and wartime photos that feature veteran Stan Feltman, 93, the man standing behind the cart. Feltman is a familiar face at the store as he stands there practically every day, all year long, collecting money for his fellow veterans with the recognizable red poppies in his hand. Some days he takes a break, but only from his usual spot. He then moves on to collect money at the Walmart in Centereach or East Setauket.

Feltman said he’s met so many generous people through the years. He usually can collect between $80 and $100 after standing there for two hours. One day a gentleman shook his hand and noticed he was cold and bought him a jacket from the store. One woman gave him a $20 bill one day saying it was for him to keep.

“I took the $20, and when she left I threw it in the pot,” he said. “I don’t need the money.”

A member of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA Col. Mickey Marcus Post 336, Feltman brings the donations to the post’s monthly meetings where he and his fellow members decide where the money should go. Post Comdr. Norman Weitz said over the last few years they have been able to donate more than $21,000 thanks to Feltman’s fundraising efforts. The post is a regular contributor to many veterans efforts, including the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University.

“A common theme you will see in the veterans community is that veterans are dedicated to giving back to helping other veterans.”

– Jonathan Spier

In 2017, the post donated $5,000 to LISVH. Jonathan Spier, deputy executive director of the vets home, said the donation was used to purchase oxygen concentrators for the patients. He said the JWV has been a partner with the home for more than 20 years and other donations from them have been used for recreational therapy programs. The post also assists Jewish vets to attend Shabbat and holiday services.

“A common theme you will see in the veterans community is that veterans are dedicated to giving back to helping other veterans,” he said.

Spier added he is in awe of Feltman’s fundraising efforts.

“It’s really incredible to see that passion and that energy and the effort that he puts in to help veterans,” he said.

As for his war record, Feltman was a B-29 tail gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1945. He was a double ace, meaning he shot down 10 enemy planes. Weitz said he admires Feltman, who one time when he was shot down had to escape on a raft. When Feltman’s fellow soldier slipped off the raft into shark-infested waters, he dived down to save him and grabbed him by the collar. Feltman earned the Bronze Star Medal for saving the man’s life. The medal wasn’t the only one earned during his service, as he gained four medals in total throughout his time in the Air Corps, even though they are no longer in his possession.

“My wife was so proud of them when she passed away, I put them in her coffin,” he said.

Weitz said he believes there are more heroic acts that Feltman doesn’t talk about, and the office of U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is trying to see if his medals can be replaced by writing to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, which has access to after-action reports. The post commander has also nominated Feltman for membership in the Legion of Honor of The Chapel of Four Chaplains, which recognizes veterans who have gone above and beyond their required duties and contribute to their community.

In addition to raising money for veterans, Feltman has participated in lectures at schools and senior groups, including Erasmus Hall High School where he attended while growing up in Brooklyn. He also has been interviewed for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, an initiative established to collect and preserve firsthand remembrances of wartime veterans.

Weitz calls Feltman amazing and said he is worthy of all the accolades he has received.

“The record amount of money he’s collected allows us to distribute thousands and thousands to local veterans organizations,” he said.

John Tsunis and Fred Sganga along with Suffolk County and New York State officials, stand by vets who were at the Battle of the Bulge. Photos by Kyle Barr

At the Long Island State Veterans Home, John Tsunis, the owner of the Holiday Inn Express at Stony Brook and board member of the vets home, briefly choke up when speaking of his father, Charles, a World War II veteran and soldier during the Battle of the Bulge, consisting of over a month of fighting from December 1944 to January 1945. 

The Long Island State Veterans Home honored four Battle of the Bulge veterans Dec. 16. Photos by Kyle Barr.

His father called the Battle of the Bulge “a hell on ice,” and Tsunis described when his father had been forced behind enemy lines where he and two of his fellow soldiers were pinned down by an enemy machine gun, helping to save several men, which earned him the Bronze Star.

“My dad took the lead and they were crawling around, keeping their heads low because there was a machine gun shooting over their heads,” he said. “He kept on crawling, not knowing what to do, until he came over some dead Germans, and under their bodies was a German bazooka. He told one of his buddies to load him up, took aim at the machine gun nest and knocked it out.” 

In what was one of the bloodiest battles Americans fought in World War II, the last major German offensive on the Western Front saw 19,000 U.S. soldiers killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 captured. The pocket created by the Germans’ push into American lines gave the battle its name. The day’s ferocious fighting was displayed in a video of historic footage shown to the gathered local officials, staff and veterans. 

The veterans home honored four veterans who experienced the battle up close and personal, James Lynam, Philip DiMarco, Frank DePergola and Thomas Struminski. Each was given a plaque, while both state and county officials presented proclamations to each in turn. Tsunis accepted the honor in place of his father who died nearly 20 years ago. He also helped name and hand out plaques honoring four men at the home who fought in one of the most consequential battles of the war.

DePergola, DiMarco, Lynam and Struminski were all there during the battle, and now that each is over 90 years old, they are some of the only people in the U.S. who can remember firsthand what happened.

Lynam’s children Kathy Corrado and William Lynam said their father didn’t speak much about the battle as they were growing up. However, once they were older, their father, a Brooklyn native, would emotionally relate snippets of the ferocious fighting.

The Long Island State Veterans Home honored four Battle of the Bulge veterans Dec. 16. Photos by Kyle Barr.

“A Tiger tank almost ran over him, and he said they just couldn’t get the gun down low enough to get him,” Corrado, a Stony Brook resident, recalled.

William Lynam said such stories put graphic imagery in his head.

“[My father] said [that] when the panzer division was coming, and these guys were trying to dig into ground that was frozen … he remembers so distinctly the sound of the panzers, the Tiger tanks rolling over a field of cabbage, crushing the heads of cabbage and they were all imagining skulls of men were being crushed as they were coming through,” he said.

Others in the audience remembered the horrors of that day up close. Alfred Kempski, a World War II veteran living in the vets home, pointed to a black-and-white image of the Battle of the Bulge, of American soldiers in long greatcoats, M3 submachine guns and M1 Garands clutched in gloved fists, the soldiers peering forward in snow up to their knees. 

“25,000 GIs were killed at night, the Germans came in at 2 o’clock in the morning and shot them all, they were sleeping,” he said. “The snow was so deep, we had a hell of a time finding the bodies. I was only 19 then, and when I think of it now …”