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Northport VA Affairs Medical Center

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Northport VA Medical Center. File photo

The Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s homeless shelter closed their doors for repairs 18 months ago and never reopened.

Congressional leaders from all four Long Island districts want to know why and are demanding that the 50-bed facility, which they say is ready for inhabitants, welcome homeless veterans once again. 

“The closure of Northport’s on-site homeless shelter has forced veterans to find accommodations far from the medical services they need — the services that oftentimes help mitigate the root causes of homelessness,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) in a prepared joint statement.

The veterans who stayed at the VA’s shelter suffered mainly from traumatic brain injury, post- traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, according to Frank Amalfitano, president and CEO of Beacon House, the non-profit entity that managed the facility before it closed.

“It would be a tragedy if the place didn’t reopen, because so many people need the convenience of the services offered in one location,” he said. 

Northport’s  shelter closed in January 2018 for renovations to the heating system. Its closure was prolonged because the contractor hired by VA failed to update the building in accordance with current fire codes, according to information provided by Long Island’s congressional leaders. 

“As it has been presented to us, Building 11 has now been brought up to code and is ready to be inhabited,”  they said in a press release. “However, due to VA’s decision to terminate the on-site contract with Building 11’s vendor, with neither a communicated reason nor a viable replacement, we now find ourselves sixteen months later with a renovated building and no vendor in place to provide this vital service to our community’s veterans.”

Levi Spellman, press officer for the Northport VA Medical Center, said the contracting requirements are changing for the shelter, so that it can potentially be awarded to a for-profit, veteran-owned business. “We are actively expediting this process and anticipate resuming on-site services before the end of the year,” he said. Spellman also stated that Beacon has done a great job for the VA. “Although housing moved off-site, the same vendor is managing those shelters and the care we provide our veterans has not changed.”

Amalfitano said his contract for the Northport shelter was supposed to last until 2020. He’s been encouraged to reapply, but his organization may no longer qualify.

Beacon House manages 42 residential programs in Nassau and Suffolk counties for veterans. The mission of the 25-year-old, non-profit, which is funded by United Way, is to “help veterans regain their self-worth and empower them with the tools necessary to rejoin their communities as independent and productive citizens.”

A 76-year-old veteran committed suicide on the Northport VA campus last week. File photo

By Victoria Espinoza

A 76-year-old veteran from Islip committed suicide Sunday, Aug. 21, in the parking lot of the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, according to news sources.

Peter A. Kaisen was pronounced dead at the scene, and according to Northport VA Director Philip Moschitta, in a letter to U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the body was found next to his car in parking lot I on the campus. Moschitta said an employee of the VA found the body lying on the pavement, and the Northport Police Department, Suffolk County Police Department and FBI responded to the scene.

Moschitta also said there is no record of Kaisen entering the emergency room that day, and that during the 12 minutes he spent at the VA, he didn’t appear to leave the parking lot, as shown on video surveillance.

Multiple news sources have reported that Kaisen was denied service, but Veterans Affairs denies the veteran sought medical attention, although they said the investigation is ongoing.

“Our staff of medical professionals would never turn away an individual who required any level of health care,” Moschitta said in the letter. “We have not found any evidence that the veteran sought assistance from any of our staff, including visiting the emergency room that day. It appears the details of the tragic incident may have been misrepresented in the media coverage.”

Zeldin, a veteran himself, said the loss is heartbreaking.

The loss of even a single veteran in America due to suicide is one too much,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, throughout our country, every day 22 veterans take their own life. It is so important to have the best possible understanding as to why these suicides keep happening. For me personally, I have lost more people I know due to suicide than in combat. Our veterans are returning home feeling isolated and alone and feeling like their family, friends and colleagues at work don’t understand what it is that they are going through. What is especially tragic, especially here in Suffolk County, is that a veteran will feel isolated and alone even though there are literally thousands of others throughout our county who would move heaven and Earth to shower a veteran in need with love, appreciation and support.”

Zeldin said that it’s important to note that even though Kaisen’s death was a result of suicide, there are many incidents of veterans whose deaths are incorrectly labeled suicide.

“PFC Joseph Dwyer’s last words when he passed away in 2008 were ‘I don’t want to die.’ He was looking for temporary relief to escape his pain, but he wasn’t looking to leave behind a young widow and 2-year-old daughter.”

Dwyer is known around the country for a famous photo of him carrying a young ailing Iraqi boy during combat. Dwyer’s legacy led to the creation the PFC Joseph Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Program, which provides a safe, confidential and educational platform where all veterans are welcome to meet with other veterans in support of each other’s successful transition to postservice life.

“This program should be in every county in the United States,” Zeldin said. “Losing one veteran as a result of suicide is unacceptable. As investigations into this suicide continue, I will continue to aggressively stay on top of this situation. What is so incredibly important to me and for others is to identify any specific ways at all that this veteran was underserved, so that it can be immediately and completely corrected in order for something very positive to result from this very tragic event. Every time a veteran takes his or her own life, the system has failed.”

Triple cancer survivor, veteran and volunteer firefighter seeks to give back to community

Albert Statton, above, stands in his gear as a Greenlawn firefighter. Photo from Statton

A Greenlawn volunteer firefighter, Army veteran and three-time cancer survivor has faced many battles in his life, but now he is fighting a different kind of battle.

Albert Statton, 64, created the Operation Enduring Care project at the Greenlawn Fire Department to collect food and clothing donations to help people who need immediate assistance and “offer them some type of comfort.” All of the donations collected will be given to The Salvation Army-managed homeless shelter at the Northport VA Affairs Medical Center.

Statton was drafted into the military in 1970 and served as a combat medic in Germany, Asia and across the United States. He finished his last tour of duty in the late 1990s but returned to his roots when he received treatment at the Northport VA after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. He found solace in dropping off items at the shelter on his way to chemotherapy.

“When being treated, it’s a physical and a mental battle,” Statton said in a phone interview. “I had highs and lows. I tried to make it a positive by bringing donations to shelter, so instead of going for me I was helping someone.”

He said the shelter for homeless veterans gets as many as 60 families a week that ask for assistance, especially during the holiday season.

Statton’s desire to help others is something he said he learned as a firefighter.

“You never say, ‘I was a firefighter.’ I am a firefighter and the things I have learned are ingrained in me forever.”

He said the volunteers at Greenlawn took his sick father to the hospital more than 20 times, so afterward he wanted to make a donation to the department to say thank you.

“I realized I didn’t have enough money to repay a debt like that,” Statton said. “I wanted to give back to the community the same way they did to my father.”

Statton served his community proudly until he was diagnosed with cancer.

He is impressed with the level of dedication all of the volunteers at Greenlawn bring to their work and how much they learned about the rescue system.

“So many people take the time to raise the bar on what’s available for the community,” Statton said.

He credits his cancer recovery to the members of the fire department for their inspiration and good wishes while he was sick, and their visits to his bedside at the hospital to pray with him.

One story in particular stands out in his mind: Statton, in the hospital, was once so battered by his treatment that he stopped breathing, and he found out later that at that same moment his comrades had begun a prayer group for him. He regained his ability to breathe minutes later.

“I had a very supportive network of brothers and sisters that encouraged me to persevere,” he said. “My respect and my love goes very deep for the fire department.”

Donations to support Statton’s effort to give back to local veterans can be dropped off at 23 Boulevard Ave. in Greenlawn. Statton said canned meats and vegetables are in high demand, as well as packaged undergarments and socks.