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Deborah Bonacasa signs the deed for her new home in Sound Beach. Photo by Ron Pacchiana/JPA STUDIO

When Louis Bonacasa was to return home from his fourth deployment to Afghanistan, he told his wife he’d make it his last. He wanted to settle down, buy a home, become a dietician technician, open a business, give his 5-year-old daughter Lilianna a sibling and finally begin his life.

But Bonacasa didn’t return home.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner presents Deborah Bonacasa, who is fighting back tears, with a certificate of congratulations. Photo by Ron Pacchiana/JPA STUDIO
Councilwoman Jane Bonner presents Deborah Bonacasa, who is fighting back tears, with a certificate of congratulations. Photo by Ron Pacchiana/JPA STUDIO

To honor him and his wife Deborah, also a veteran, the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 chose the Bonacasa family to receive one of two homes being built on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach.

“I don’t have the words,” said Deborah Bonacasa, whose husband was one of six killed in a suicide bomb attack on Dec. 21. “It’s an honor and I’m just very happy and overwhelmed with joy for their support in fulfilling this dream, because it’s something that my husband always wanted to do for the family — to provide the home for us. So it’s quite an honor.”

VFW Post Commander Joe Cognitore held the contract signing at the Fischer/Hewins post last Wednesday, and said it was a moving moment to be a part of.

“It was one of the best days I’ve had in all my time here at the VFW,” he said. “It was very cathartic. To know that we’ve helped Deborah out, and not only was her husband a veteran but she is too, it’s that much more gratifying to be able to honor both for their service.”

This is the ninth home that Cognitore and the VFW have partnered with Mark Baisch on, of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point.

“It’s my way of giving back,” Baisch said. “The Bonacasas are fantastic. It couldn’t be a better selection.”

Landmark Properties builds the houses from the ground up, and Bonacasa was able to pick out some of the finishing touches to make the house special to her.

Lilianna Bonacasa, 5, holds up a photo of her family's new home given to them by the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249. Photo by Ron Pacchiana/JPA STUDIO
Lilianna Bonacasa, 5, holds up a photo of her family’s new home given to them by the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249. Photo by Ron Pacchiana/JPA STUDIO

“I was able to pick out cabinets, flooring, what type of granite I wanted,” she said. “I was able to personalize it and able to pick certain colors that my husband would have liked to have in the kitchen and bathroom, so that was a special time.”

Bonacasa currently lives in California and lived with her husband in Coram for nine years after leaving the U.S. Air Force in 2006, and said that being able to move into the new home in two-and-a-half months is even more special because she’ll be able to be closer to him.

“We’ll be 20 minutes away from Calverton, so we’ll be on the Island with my husband,” she said, fighting back tears. “It’s bittersweet. I wish he were here to see and experience all of these wonderful things. It’s a beautiful home.”

Through tragedy, Bonacasa has been brought closer to her husband and to the new community she will be a part of. A home next door to hers will also house a veteran family. It has not yet been determined who will receive that home.

“I just want to thank everyone involved for all the love and support that they’ve shown our family,” Bonacasa said, sobbing. “I’ll never forget my husband and the sacrifices that he made. Not only did we lose a hero, but a wonderful man.”

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Joe Cognitore, commander of VFW Post 6249, dedicates much of his time to helping veterans and his local community. File photo

“He’s a gentle giant.”

That’s what Rocky Point High School social studies teacher Rich Acritelli had to say about Rocky Point’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Fischer-Hewins Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore.

“He’s always got the community at his heart,” said Acritelli, who first met Cognitore in 2005 when he asked the post to come down and do a color guard for one of his programs. “He’s such a gentleman, a good guy and he has a good combination of common sense, leadership and also humor.”

Cognitore, who has lived in Rocky Point since 1983, served in Vietnam from April 1969 through March 1971, where he held the ranks of acting platoon sergeant and acting platoon leader. He earned the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge, as well as the National Defense, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign, and Air medals.

He first became active in the VFW in 1991, where he sent packages to troops overseas.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) first met Cognitore right after Sept. 11, 2001, when she was working with the North Shore Beach Property Owners’ Association on a planned blood drive. She said he donated cases of water and soda to the event.

“He’s one of the nicest men that I’ve ever met in my whole entire life,” she said. “He’s a very active participant in all things that make Rocky Point great, but he’s also a really big asset to us in Brookhaven. Joe’s always my first phone call for anything veteran-related.”

Since his start at the post, his role in the VFW and in the community has only continued to grow. The commander also raises money for the Joseph P. Dwyer peer-to-peer group and helped fund the building of two houses for returning veterans in Sound Beach.

Bea Ruberto, president of the Sound Beach Civic Association, met Cognitore five years ago, when she reached out to him for help with the hamlet’s Veteran’s Memorial Park. Ruberto said the plans stalled because of a loss of funding.

“He sat down with us and spoke for hours,” she said. “He’s great. He’s very, very generous with his time. Had it not been for his input I’m not sure we would’ve gone in the direction we did and got the funding for the park.”

Cognitore also worked with Acritelli on the 9/11 memorial at the Diamond in the Pines Park in Coram, helping raise more than $40,000. The two are also working on helping to plan the ninth annual Wounded Warriors golf outing.

“We raised a lot of money for local guys,” Acritelli said. “Joe personifies everything that a citizen should be. He is always working for the betterment of his community. He’s going to be a tough guy to replace at the VFW post and in the state because he does so much.”

Cognitore said he was passionate about not only doing what he can for veterans but the community at large. He has used Post 6249 to host several other events including senior, Cub Scout and Girl Scout meetings, local soup kitchens, and to raise money for local families in need of assistance and for scholarships at Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River high schools.

“It’s contagious,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of effort, and we’re all volunteers here at the post.”

This dedication earned him induction into the New York State Senate Veteran’s Hall of Fame in 2005. He received this honor from New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

“I was floored,” he said of the nomination. “It was nice, and a great feeling. It recognized a veteran for their service and being a veteran, but also, for what you’ve done outside the veteran realm, and we help the community. The post is opened to mostly everybody.”

Frank Tepedino, of Saint James, who is a former MLB player for the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves, has worked with Cognitore on several fundraisers and spoke with him at different events.

“It’s unbelievable the work that he does,” he said. “A man that takes that much time to ensure that nobody is left behind — he’s always out there to help any cause. He knows a lot of people and he’s surrounded himself with good people and he can get a lot done because of it.”

Ruberto said Cognitore opened her eyes to the countless returning veterans that struggle, realizing that helping returning vets should be more of a concern that honoring fallen soldiers.

“He made me aware of the number of homeless vets that are out there, or the home in Yaphank that feeds and houses vets, so it’s because of those conversations with him that made a light go off,” she said. “He’s very passionate about doing whatever he can for veterans.”

Cognitore said he gets so much enjoyment out of what he does that it doesn’t matter how much time he puts into it, as long as the final outcome is helping someone in need.

“It’s like a full time job,” he said. “Getting everything set up and running around takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it.”

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

By Rich Acritelli

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

To say that Long Island native Butch Langhorn has lived a full life would be an understatement. As a veteran and a community man, he has both seen a lot and given a lot back to the county that raised him.

From his youth, Langhorn was a gifted three-sport athlete, excelling in football, basketball and track for Riverhead High School. His impact was so great that he held the record for the triple jump for 10 years after his graduation.

In 1964, the young man enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens. While he worked in the personnel office, his sporting abilities allowed him the chance to play basketball within the Special Services of the Army. Langhorn competed as a 5-foot-8-inch guard against many who had experience playing semiprofessional and Division I hoops. The servicemen competing had the rare opportunity of representing their military bases in games that ranged from Maine to New Jersey.

The next year, Langhorn was deployed to South Vietnam, where he saw the earliest action of the war in Southeast Asia. In an interview, he noted the beauty of the nation and the influence of French culture on the former capital of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. For a couple of months, Langhorn was a gunner on a helicopter that flew into the major combat areas of South Vietnam, engaged against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. He was tasked with helping medical evacuation crews with the vital mission of returning wounded and dead U.S. soldiers to American bases.

As a young African-American soldier during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Langhorn observed the treatment of blacks in South Vietnam. According to Langhorn, he had a relationship with a local woman of French descent who took him home to meet her family. When he met her mother, the woman told him to shower and take a nap before dinner. Again he came into her presence and she wrongly believed that he was a white soldier who had too much dirt on his skin. It was one example of a different racial experience for Langhorn — he quickly learned that most of the black soldiers who were fighting against the communists in South Vietnam were not understood by the very people they were trying to protect.

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn

After more than a year overseas, Langhorn went home to finish his Army tour. By 1971, he quickly re-enlisted as an active guardsmen reservist, serving full-time for the New York 106th Air National Guard base in Westhampton Beach. For many years, he was the head of the recruiting station that brought in many fine airmen, noncommissioned officers and officers. Langhorn had a prideful hand in signing military members from different backgrounds to enhance the Air Force wing. Many of the men and women he recruited have been deployed to the Middle East to fight the war on terror, conducted massive air-sea rescues in the Atlantic Ocean, endured the rigors of the elite pararescue jumper training and deployments, and tackled the older mission of aiding space shuttle landings. Langhorn later oversaw the personnel department that was responsible for sorting out the paperwork needs of the military unit.

Langhorn may be retired after serving four decades in uniform, but he is still a dominant member of his community and has spent a lot of that time trying to help young people. He served on the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education for five years, working to keep athletics and other programs in the schools, and as a current assistant for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, he organizes educational programs that bring high school criminal justice students to visit the county jail. In his role, he also helps guide nonprofit groups that are focused on rehabilitating inmates. In addition, former Congressmen Michael Forbes and Tim Bishop both recognized Langhorn’s professionalism, and he served as an instrumental member of their staffs to handle veterans affairs.

Since his youth, this North Shore citizen has given back to his society and to his nation. TBR Newspapers salutes him during Black History Month.

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.

Landmark Properties set to break ground next week

Two veterans and their families will soon be Sound Beach homeowners. Stock photo

For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living on Long Island, finding an affordable new home is the difference between remaining on the Island and leaving.

According to Mark Baisch, of Rocky Point-based Landmark Properties, many Long Island veterans cannot afford to purchase a home on the Island and are forced to move.

Baisch, alongside Commander Joseph Cognitore of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Fischer/Hewins Post 6249 of Rocky Point, is helping two veterans and their families live a little easier with the construction of two new homes on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach.

According to Cognitore the $250,000 homes are actually worth around $400,000. Basich said the properties could not exceed $250,000 in order for the vets to afford the property and mortgage rates. But, with the help of Suffolk County and the Long Island Housing Partnership, Baisch said the price of the properties could be reduced to $190,000 each.

“They’re getting a brand new Landmark house for it looks like possibly … a hundred plus thousand dollars less than market value,” Baisch said.

The reduced price allows veterans to get an affordable mortgage like the VA mortgage, which offers zero down payment.

According to Cognitore, he and his committee of veterans screen each candidate to determine the vet’s need for the home after the mortgage company approves them for a loan. The vets must also be first-time home buyers who make less than $200,000-$300,000 annually. The amount of years a vet served, the size of their family and whether they received awards for their service are determining factors. However, for Cognitore and his committee the hardest part is selecting the candidates.

“It’s a good opportunity for a couple of families,” Cognitore said. “Unfortunately, everybody that we interview deserves a home.”

Although this is not the first time Cognitore and Baisch are helping Long Island veterans, this is the first time Baisch is constructing the homes alone. Landmark Properties’ construction workers may start clearing the land this week, according to Baisch.

While a veteran with physical disabilities has not received one of the homes in the past, Baisch said he could tailor the home to the veteran’s needs. Cognitore hopes to select the veterans before Landmark Properties finishes construction.

“What happened in the past, we got all the candidates together and a lot of times they couldn’t wait to build the home,” Cognitore said regarding construction. “They didn’t know who the candidates were right away so they had to start building the home prior to the candidates being picked.”

Cognitore said they would reach out to previous candidates who did not receive a home and bring them up to speed with the process.

Regardless of the veterans who get the homes, both Cognitore and Baisch are happy to make a difference and help vets in need.

Cognitore said the lower cost of the homes “makes it affordable for them and they could just make it. That’s the kind of opportunities that we’re looking for.”

Baisch expressed similar thoughts.

“Every veteran that I’ve sold a house to has told me that if it weren’t for [the homes], they would have left Long Island,” Baisch said.

This version corrects a typo that misidentified a country where American veterans served overseas.