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Memorial Day

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Middle Country Road in Centereach was decked out in red, white and blue on Sunday in honor of Memorial Day. Hundreds watched the vintage cars, marching bands, bagpipers, motorcycles, scouts and military and fire trucks at the hamlet’s Memorial Day parade, which was organized by the Centereach Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4927.

Residents across Three Village in East Setauket, Stony Brook and beyond stopped on Monday to honor the memories of our nation’s heroes as their respective Memorial Day parades stepped off.

Groups representing various facets of the community came out in full force to march in the parade before somber ceremonies stopped to say thanks to those who dedicated their lives to military service.

The American Legion Riders from Greenlawn ride in the 2015 Memorial Day parade and honor a fallen soldier. Photo by Dan Woulfin
The Huntington Fire Department rides in the 2015 Memorial Day parade. Photo by Dan Woulfin
The Huntington Fire Department rides in the 2015 Memorial Day parade. Photo by Dan Woulfin

By Dan Woulfin

Huntington held its annual Memorial Day parade on Monday, May 25, and residents from all around watched their local veterans march down the street in honor of the American men and women of the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, laying down their lives for freedom.

Firefighters, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and marching bands from local high schools and middle schools also marched in the parade alongside the veterans.

Vietnam veteran Thomas Semkow, from Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars, poses with members of the A-Team in 1968. Photo from Semkow

‘Many veterans of Vietnam still serve in the Armed Forces, work in our offices, on our farms, and in our factories. Most have kept their experiences private, but most have been strengthened by their call to duty. A grateful nation opens her heart today in gratitude for their sacrifice, for their courage, and for their noble service.’ — President Ronald Reagan, Memorial Day Speech, May 28, 1984

By Rich Acritelli

Today Vietnam veterans comprise the largest group of Americans who have fought for this country. Nearly three million citizens were deployed to Southeast Asia during the longest war in our history. For the next couple of decades, they will also be the most prominent group of veterans in this nation.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville reaches into the sky. File photo

Locally, the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans and the VFW Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 of Rocky Point are two groups that strenuously work to welcome home all members of the armed forces who have protected this nation during the war on terror. These organizations are headed by two men who are driven to help every veteran.

Richard Kitson, from Port Jefferson Station, is the longtime president of the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans. Members of this chapter all point to Kitson’s dedication: He organizes members to speak in the schools, march in parades, welcome home veterans, help their families and assist veterans who have fallen on hard times. Both groups have been a fixture at the Rocky Point High School Veterans Day program and have been guest speakers at the Vietnam War history classes that are taught at Ward Melville High School in E. Setauket.

Kitson grew up in Levittown and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a mortar man in Dong Ha, situated near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. The war had especially hit home for Kitson as he not only lost many friends from his hometown but his brother was killed fighting in Vietnam in 1969. It is families like Kitson’s who have completely sacrificed for this nation.

Instead of returning home to a grateful country, these veterans were degraded for their efforts to serve in the military. For several years the government did not recognize those who fought in Vietnam, and because of this policy, these veterans were not properly recognized for their service. It was not until 1978 that the Vietnam Veterans of America was granted the same rights to function as a charter as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
Richard Kitson and Frank D’Aversa served in Vietnam. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

After the war, Kitson went to college, married, started a family and worked for the post office. It was not until the 1980s that he began to fight for greater rights for the veterans who fought in that war. His devotion helped build the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial at Bald Hill in Farmingville and his chapter will read the names of all those residents of Suffolk County who were lost during that conflict at the site on Memorial Day at 5 p.m.

This weekend marks an important date for Kitson for not only thanking our veterans who served in the military but also to recall the memory of his brother. Kitson and his members are always visible to ensure that our local veterans are properly thanked for their past, present and future service.

Joseph A. Cognitore is the commander of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars. A former football and track standout from Farmingdale, he went to college in South Dakota and after graduation joined the U.S. Army. Cognitore fought in Vietnam in 1970 and had the unique experience of operating inside of Cambodia. A platoon sergeant, he was part of the air cavalry that flew dangerous missions into territory that was held by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Cognitore was a combat veteran who was always looking out for the safety and security of his soldiers.

For almost two decades, Cognitore tried to put the war behind him by taking care of his family and working for the Coca-Cola Company. It was not until the first Gulf War that Cognitore became an active participant at Post 6249 in Rocky Point. He wanted to ensure that the men and women who were serving overseas were properly cared for at home and abroad.

Currently, Cognitore runs one of the most productive VFW posts on Long Island and is the legislative chair for the Department of New York Veterans of Foreign Wars. Retired from his job, Cognitore puts in a tremendous number of volunteer hours running this post. He has helped run a Wounded Warrior Golf Outing, has participated in the creation of a 9/11 Memorial and is always present in our local schools. This weekend presents a somber moment for Cognitore to reflect on all of his comrades who were killed in Vietnam.

Both Kitson and Cognitore state how fortunate they are to have soldiers that still give back to their communities. One of these veterans is Bay Shore resident Ralph Zanchelli. After graduating from high school in 1962, Zanchelli immediately enlisted into the U.S. Naval Reserves. With the war escalating in Vietnam, he was deployed to the USS Bennington CVS 20, which operated in the South China Sea. This aircraft carrier guarded against the North Vietnamese torpedo boats that attacked American shipping off the coast of this communist nation.

From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl
From left, Richard Kitson, Clarence Simpson, Barry Gochman, Jimmy O’ Donnell and Bill Fuchs. Photo from Jennifer Pohl

Zanchelli was a Hot Case-man gunner who caught the rounds as they were fired. This job ensured that discharged armaments would not start any fires within the ship during combat operations. The carrier served 30-day intervals off the coast of North Vietnam, and Zanchelli observed the earliest moments of this war. For Memorial Day, he would like everyone to say a short prayer for those currently protecting this nation.

Gill Jenkins from Post 6249 is another local citizen who goes about his business in a quiet and friendly manner. He lives by the credo that all veterans, regardless of when they served, must be respected. During the height of the Tet offensive in 1968, Jenkins was a plumber and handyman on the USS Intrepid, which operated off the coast of South Vietnam.

This naval veteran served for four years, and he vividly recalled the launch and recovery efforts of this historic carrier to attack the enemy and to locate those airmen that were shot down. During his naval years, Jenkins traveled around the world on the Intrepid. He recalled how the vessel was hit by a typhoon as it was traveling around the tip of the Cape of Good Hope.

One of the nearly 600,000 armed forces members who were sent to Vietnam in 1968 was Tom Semkow from Center Moriches. Currently the main photographer for Post 6249, Semkow was a Special Forces medic in the Mekong Delta for 10 months. During the height of Tet, he remembered how the enemy made their presence felt by firing mortars and attacking the American military squads that operated in the area. He recalled operating in the flooded areas of this country and receiving air boat rides from Chinese operators who transported them into combat areas. Semkow enjoys the camaraderie of this post and likes to attend the Memorial Day services at Calverton National Cemetery each year.

Memorial Day is a moment when our nation welcomes the warm weather, watches a ball game and barbeques. But we Americans need to take a brief time-out of our schedules to honor and recall those Americans who have protected us during every conflict in our history. Thank you to all those service members, especially to the Vietnam Veterans we “Welcome Home” on this national day of remembrance.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.

A scene from a previous “I Did The Grid” event in East Northport. Photo from Megan Scherer

By Julianne Cuba

This Memorial Day weekend, for the eighth year in a row, the streets of East Northport will be filled with joggers and walkers honoring the lives of fallen soldiers.

On May 23, the Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer memorial “I Did the Grid” four-mile competitive run, one-mile fun run and four-mile recreational run/walk honors the life of Chris Scherer and all men and women who gave their lives to serve the U.S. The run will begin at Pulaski Road Elementary in East Northport.

Scherer, who was a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, was born and raised in East Northport. He lost his life while serving in the province of Al Anbar in Iraq on July 21, 2007.

The late U.S. Marine Cpl. Chris Scherer. Photo from Megan Scherer
The late U.S. Marine Cpl. Chris Scherer. Photo from Megan Scherer

In his memory, the Scherer family started the Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer Semper Fi Fund, and on Memorial Day in 2008, held the first annual run to honor their son and all fallen warriors.

“Put your personal achievements away for the day and come to honor them [fallen soldiers] because it is Memorial Day weekend and that’s what we should be doing … take a little time to think about the men and women who have died serving our country and the families they left behind,” Scherer’s father Tim Scherer said.

Scherer said that his son was a great kid who loved life and wanted to help his fellow Marines. In their final phone call before his death, Scherer said his son asked him to send lighter boot socks that wouldn’t make him sweat as much. Just before he hung up, his son asked if he would be able to send socks for other Marines, too, because many didn’t have families.

The father said he sent out an email asking for contributions.

“It was just an email, I never thought I’d get anything, but in four days I had $2,500 to buy supplies for the troops, so we sent over 100 packages but he never got one of them … it was just heartbreaking.”

It was through his son’s own desire to help his fellow Marines that the Scherer family got the idea for the fund and run, he said.

Scherer said his son’s greatest quality was his loyalty for everything he loved — his family, his friends, his lacrosse team and the U.S. Marines.

“This is not just about Chris,” his father said. “The race is named after him but we run for over 6,800 fallen warriors … no service person is left behind. Everyone who has given their life is represented on Memorial Day, because that’s what Memorial Day is.”

Scherer said that instead of giving out awards, the run asks participants to look up the names of the four fallen soldiers on their bibs, from either Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom. The bibs are given out before the run. Upon completion, each participant will ring a bell to signify that no fallen warrior would be forgotten, he said.

Meghan Scherer, the late Cpl. Scherer’s sister, also said that each year, they alternate giving out either a coin or pint glass, which were two of her brother’s favorite things.

“Challenge coins in the military are usually given when someone does something extraordinary, so we feel that they should receive a coin, because they’re doing something amazing by remembering these men and women,” she said.

His sister said she and her other siblings — an older brother, Tim, and twin sister, Kaitlin — were all always so close.

“Nobody ever picked on my sister or me because they knew Chris would always have our backs,” she said. “Chris would pick on us but it was never anybody else. We were always protected from the start and that’s what he did, he protected us as a Marine.”

Matt Baudier, 34, from Northport, was an Eagle Scout with Scherer and was his mentor for a few years, he said.

“As his mentor, he always looked up to me, but the day that he deployed, he became my hero,” he said.

Baudier said the run is a good way to honor Scherer and all fallen soldiers.

“One of our taglines is, ‘We run for those who stood for us,’” he said.