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Northport VA

Sen. Chuck Schumer with Jerry Chiano's family surround a photo at the Long Island Veteran's home in Stony Brook Dec. 20.

Before Vietnam vet Jerry Chiano of Valley Stream died in 2017 after battling a rare form of bile duct cancer, he fought to raise awareness by urging Vietnam vets to get tested for liver fluke exposure. The tiny worm, found in Southeast Asia, can be transmitted to humans after they eat raw or uncooked fish. The parasite lives in the biliary system and is the known cause of bile duct cancer. 

“It’s such a crazy disease,” said Chiano’s daughter, Jennifer Paglino. “My father wanted other people to know about it, so they’d get the treatment and benefits they deserve.” 

Chiano’s awareness campaign garnered the support of researchers at the Northport VA Medical Center, who concluded that same year in a pilot study that one in four local Vietnam vets who ate raw or uncooked fish while deployed were exposed to the parasite. 

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sounded alarms in late December, stating the study remains largely unused. He’s urging the VA to look seriously at the issue and Northport VA’s work, noting that benefit claims for the disease have increased sixfold since 2003, while 80 percent of the claims submitted in 2015 have been denied.

The VA is conducting the Vietnam Era Veterans Mortality Study, a national effort that will look at data from everyone who served in the military during the Vietnam era, from Feb. 28, 1961 through May 7, 1975, and compare mortality rates for all ailments, including bile duct cancer. Results for that study are pending. 

The agency did not say if that study would dictate whether or not bile duct cancer is considered a service-related disease. 

Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) said he hopes the VA’s new large-scale research mission “will pave the way for infected veterans to receive the treatment they have earned.”

Schumer is demanding that the Northport research be used. 

He noted that the situation raises questions about the VA process for acknowledging service-related illnesses and how its researchers use the statistically based science of epidemiology, which links exposure to disease. 

The VA website clearly states that liver fluke exposure can cause bile duct cancer. Yet, a VA spokesperson said in an email that the Northport research is flawed, while discounting the risks. 

“The VA is not aware of any studies that show that bile duct cancer occurs more often in U.S. Vietnam veterans than in any other group of people,” he stated. 

Schumer pointed out how the VA initially found in 2009 limited evidence to suggest that exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War caused Parkinson’s disease. Months later, it reversed its decision and added the disease to the list of covered conditions connected to exposure to herbicide agents. 

Schumer and the entire Long Island congressional delegation — Zeldin, Tom Suozzi (D-NY-3), Peter King (R-NY-2) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY-4) — have urged the VA to study the issue. 

“Local vets, some of whom are already sick, need reassurance that these studies lead to answers on service-related health claims, while others have passed away while fighting for awareness and VA testing,” Schumer stated. 

As the VA embarks on another large-scale research mission on toxins and environmental exposure, Schumer underscores the importance of using the Northport data. 

“We have samples, antigen markers and more; there’s good stuff here from this smaller study, but it is largely sitting on a shelf, as we are here today to say: use what’s useful,” he said. 

However, the VA bluntly states: “No future VA studies will utilize data from the Northport VA Medical Center’s pilot Liver Fluke study …” 

In an email, the VA spokesperson explained that the Northport VA liver fluke study relied on a test used in Asia, where the disease is prevalent, which is not FDA approved. It also noted, among other things, that the Northport VA study lacked control groups. Plus, he said, none of the patients who tested positive for liver fluke exposure actually suffer from bile duct cancer. 

Gerald Wiggins a Vietnam vet from Port Jefferson Station took part in the Northport VA liver fluke study and was one of 12 veterans found to have been exposed to the parasite. He does not have bile duct cancer, but he said he had two bile duct cysts removed in September 2017 at Sloan Kettering. 

The disease, he said, is a ticking time bomb. He can’t understand why the government isn’t supporting veterans. At 71 years old, he said it’s late for him. But he believes every veteran who served in Southeast Asia and areas prone to the parasite should be tested. 

“Ten people came down with Zika virus in Florida and within two weeks the federal government gave $600 million to fight it,” he said. “As a vet, I laid my life on the line and got nothing.” 

He submitted a VA claim, which he said was denied. His other insurance picked up the tab.

George Psvedos, an infectious disease specialist and a Northport VA physician, conducted the study. The Northport VA was unsuccessful in gaining clearance for an interview from the VA. But, as noted in his research conclusion statement, his study was the first to show evidence of exposure to liver fluke in U.S. soldiers deployed in Vietnam. He called for more research to examine the link between a Vietnam exposure and the likelihood of veterans developing bile duct cancer.  

Currently, no validated test for liver fluke infection is available for clinical use in the United States, according to the VA website. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending serological testing for exposure, the VA said. 

The Northport VA said that if veterans express concerns or symptoms of bile duct cancer, the VA screens them right away. 

Meanwhile, the prognosis for bile duct cancer is poor, with a 30 percent five-year survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.

Jerry Chiano stands in front of an American flag dangling his dog tags.

As for Chiano, he ultimately died of an esophageal bleed, his daughter said, caused by throat cancer induced by exposure to Agent Orange.

“He thought he was going to die of bile duct cancer,” said Paglino. “We thought [his dying of Agent Orange exposure] was his way of making sure that my mother received VA benefits after he died.”

Survival benefits for veteran’s families are extended when a veteran’s disease is considered service related. Veterans enrolled in VA health care are eligible for VA-provided cancer care, the agency said. 

“VA encourages all veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available,” said VA spokesperson Susan Carter.

Suozzi is also still following the issue.

“At minimum, we owe Vietnam veterans answers on whether they were exposed to cancer-causing parasites while serving, and the Northport VA’s study nearly two years ago was an important step in confirming that,” he said. “This data could prove instrumental in ensuring affected veterans are taken care of nationwide. I strongly urge the Veterans Administration to include this important study in their future research or, at least explain in detail why they will not.” 

Photos from Jennifer Paglino

New Ground held a ribbon cutting ceremony at its Huntington transitional home for homeless veterans. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Two United States military veterans and their families will be the joining the Huntington community shortly as they take the keys to their new home.

New Ground, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing veteran homelessness, held a ribbon cutting ceremony May 14 to celebrate the completion of its new two-family Rockne Street transitional home.

“This is such a big deal for us,” said Shannon Boyle, executive director of the nonprofit. “This is our first residential property although we’ve been providing services to homeless veterans and their families for over two decades.”

“This is our first residential property although we’ve been providing services to homeless veterans and their families for over two decades.”
– Shannon Boyle

Boyle said her Levittown-based organization will work in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program offered by Northport VA’s Housing and Urban Development department to provide a place to live for homeless vets while they receive educational training, social services and financial literacy training.

“Out of the 62 counties in New York state, Suffolk County leads not only in terms of veterans in population, but also in the number of homeless veterans,” Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) said. “It’s great that this two-family home will provide those coming back an opportunity to raise a family in a great neighborhood.”

The home’s first residents are expected to move in June 1, according to Boyle, of which one family has already been identified. She said the veteran is a single mother who is raising two daughters, ages 5 and 7. The girls will be enrolled in Harborfields school district.

“Through Northport VA’s VASH program, the homeless veterans receive a voucher to help afford rent while receiving educational services,” Boyle said.

The veteran is meeting with a social worker from New Ground every week to create and outline a series of goals while studying for her college entrance exams, according to Boyle. The family is anticipated to live in the home for a period of three to five years before being able to afford to rent a market-rate apartment or become homeowners.

It’s great that this two-family home will provide those coming back an opportunity to raise a family in a great neighborhood.”
– Chad Lupinacci

Boyle said a second veteran and his or her family has not yet been identified and approved, but several candidates are currently in the process of being interviewed and screened.

“This is really going to be a miracle in these families lives,” U.S. Rep Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said. “A miracle like this only happens when people at New Grounds and the supporting groups put in the effort.

Boyle said New Ground was able to complete the house thanks to Grant Havasy, managing partner of Blue & Gold Homes in Huntington, donating his time as general contractor overseeing the project. Other companies including AvalonBay Communities, Appliance World, Cosentino, Eagle Electrical Group Inc., and Prince Carpet & Floors also donated products and services.

“On behalf of all the veteran families who will reside in this home as they work to put their lives back on track and establish a brighter future, I extend a heartfelt thank you to all who have made this possible,” Boyle said. “The outpouring of generosity has been tremendous from so many individuals and businesses that we have been able to transform this house beyond what we had dreamed possible.”

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A temporary heating and air conditioning unit installed at the homeless shelter of Northport VA medical center. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Standing in front of Northport Veterans Medical Center’s shuttered homeless shelter on Monday morning, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the center requires $15 million in emergency repairs to its heating and air-conditioning systems. Or, it faces the possibility of closing more buildings and its operating rooms again this summer.

“It’s hard to believe, but the dog days of summer are on our doorstep,” Schumer said. “The existing HVAC systems at this veterans center aren’t functioning. To shut down surgeries, to shut down treatment for our veterans is an absolute disgrace.”

Schumer called for the Department of Veterans Affairs to immediately cut an emergency check for more than $15 million to the Northport medical center April 9. The funding would come from the roughly $4 billion set aside in a recently passed federal spending bill to repair and upgrade veterans medical centers across the nation. The senator said he pushed for that funding to be approved specifically with Northport VA in mind.

“We have an emergency here; it’s worse than most other places,” Schumer said. “My message to the VA as summer looms is simple: Don’t make our Long Island veterans sweat over their health care.”

To shut down surgeries, to shut down treatment for our veterans is an absolute disgrace.”

— Chuck Schumer

Standing with Northport VAMC Director D. Scott Guermonprez, Schumer noted the 42-bed homeless shelter was closed in January after its heating system failed during a cold snap. In February, the hospital had to close five of its operating rooms due to an air-conditioning system malfunction, which caused 18 surgeries to be postponed.

The 91-year-old facility provides medical care and services to approximately 130,000 veterans living on Long Island, according to Guermonprez. Its buildings were constructed between 1927 and 1931, a time during which windows were opened and large ceiling fans used to circulate cool outdoor air. While these structures were retrofitted with supplemental heating and cooling systems, Guermonprez said, it was never fully to modern standards.

“As we replace them, we’ll ensure that we have new systems going in place, we’re not fixing the ones that are here today,” he said.

My message to the VA as summer looms is simple: Don’t make our Long Island veterans sweat over their health care.”

— Chuck Schumer

According to Schumer’s estimates, the Northport VA’s hospital will require roughly half of the $15 million to fix long-standing heating ventilation and air-conditioning issues. In 2016, the hospital was forced to close its operating rooms for four months as the air-conditioning system wasn’t properly filtering, but rather spitting particles into the air. The same unit is still in use today, according to Schumer, and needs immediate replacement, as it is 12 years past its maximum advised life span, for $2.5 million. It’s estimated that $5 million would be needed to cover duct work and air volume control boxes to regulate air flow and room temperature in the hospital.

The Northport VA hospital also needs approximately $700,000 to replace the heating and air-conditioning systems in its isolation units for infectious disease patients. These four rooms, located on the second floor, currently cannot be used.

Other buildings that require repairs and upgrades include the hospital’s pharmacy storage, the post-traumatic stress disorder treatment center and the administrative building.

“We have a $4 billion pot of money, $15 million isn’t too much to ask,” Schumer said. “We need to get it now before summer.”

In addition to the repairs, the VA medical center director said he has hired a new chief engineer and is in the process of reorganizing its engineering department to have the skills necessary to maintain and upkeep new, high-tech heating and air-conditioning units once they are in place.

Mario Buonpane pays respects at a 9/11 memorial ceremony at Heckscher Park last year. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Mario C. Buonpane, Jr., a staunch local veterans’ activist, avid golfer and a family man, died on Monday after losing a vicious battle with prostate cancer. He was 83.

Buonpane, best known for his work with Huntington Town’s veterans — having served as a charter member and chairman of the Huntington Town Veterans Advisory Board and a past commander of the Northport American Legion Post 694 — is credited with spearheading the rehab of the Northport Veteran Administration Medical Center’s golf course, which brought golfers to the grounds and proceeds to the hospital, according to his son Mark Vincent (Buonpane).

Mario Buonpane speaks at last year’s town remembrance of 9/11. File photo by Rohma Abbas
Mario Buonpane speaks at last year’s town remembrance of 9/11. File photo by Rohma Abbas

“That’s his legacy,” Vincent said. “That will remain and serve the community for years and years to come.”

He received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army and he joined the town’s veterans advisory board as a charter member in 1987. He became chairman in 1993, and since its inception, the group enhanced Veterans Plaza at Huntington Town Hall with the completion of a number of memorials honoring veterans of all wars fought by the U.S.

“Our Veterans Plaza is one of the finest on Long Island and we still have plans to improve it,” he wrote in a list of his accomplishments.

He was also the chairman of the legion’s Veterans Affairs Golf and Tournament Committee, through which he helped negotiate a contract to take over the golf course in 1996. When the group took over, the course hadn’t been mowed in five years, the greens were diseased and there were no facilities, according to Buonpane. Since then, the course touts a clubhouse with a deck, new fairways and more.

Buonpane was instrumental in getting the Northport American Legion’s Boys State and Girls State programs up and running. The programs select girls and boys off to participate in a model governments to teach them how they work, and under Buonpane’s leadership, the number of candidates the legion has sponsored has grown, from one in 1982 to about 20. The program, “teaches you how to be a good citizen,” Vincent said.

Aside from his many community contributions, Buonpane was, at heart, a family man, The father and husband, who worked for Grumman as an electrical engineer and designed electrical harnesses on the lunar module always had time for sports with the kids, Vincent said.

“He taught us great values, he taught us how to earn things the honest way, play by the rules, tell the truth and have great integrity,” Vincent said.

On his work at Grumman, Vincent said, “he contributed to the greatest journey humans had ever done.”

Buonpane’s dedication and never-give-up attitude was his trademark, the son said. He took up running in his 50s and could only run a few laps around the track but ultimately trained until he completed the New York City Marathon. He still went to the gym, even with stage 4 cancer.

“He was tough,” Vincent said. “He was a trooper.”

Others in the Huntington Town community were touched by Buonpane’s contributions, too. Supervisor Frank Petrone issued a statement on Buonpane’s death.

“He worked tirelessly to support efforts ensuring that we all remember, honor and respect our veterans and that veterans got the services and benefits they earned by serving our country,” he said. “We will miss his presence as the master of ceremonies at our wreath ceremonies and other veterans’ events.”

Joe Sledge, communications director at the Northport VA, also spoke highly of Buonpane’s contributions. Sledge said he had known Buonpane since he first started working the VA 23 years ago.

“It was he who sponsored my entry into the American Legion over 14 years ago,” he said. “He made many significant contributions to Northport VA Medical Center through his time, talent, and countless generous acts.  All who knew him would agree that Mario was a thoughtful, hard-working man whose life’s mission was to brighten the lives of others, especially hospitalized veterans. He will be sorely missed.”