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Veterans

Photo by Kyle Barr

By Rich Acritelli

The Joseph P. Dwyer Memorial Statue was installed this month by Fricke Memorials at the Rocky Point Veterans Memorial Square, standing at the crossroads of Broadway and Route 25A.

This bronze statue identifies the psychological and physical reminders that many armed forces members must endure long after they return home from the fighting. 

At one point this town park was an eyesore to the community. For many years, there was trouble at this location, and in 2011 the Town of Brookhaven permanently closed the Oxygen Bar on the property.  Led by Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), the town purchased the land for $525,000 in 2015.  

On Oct. 17, 2016, the town installed large poles that flew the American and military branch flags. 

As a longtime resident of the area, Bonner said, “It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of this worthy endeavor to honor the military efforts of Dwyer and to understand the true significance of the struggles of PTSD. This is an extremely special location to also thank our armed forces members.”  

While Bonner has been involved with many key projects, she was also instrumental in helping create the Diamond in the Pines 9/11 Memorial that was built in 2011 by VFW Post 6249 Rocky Point.

Joseph Dwyer in uniform. Photo from Dwyer family

Former state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) also played a big role in securing the necessary funds for the Dwyer statue. VFW Post 6249 Comdr. Joe Cognitore said LaValle “always positively worked with veterans groups and to help our diverse needs. This statue signifies the amazing drive of LaValle to always be a true champion of support towards the past, present and future members of the military.”  

The structure that remembers Dwyer, who was a graduate of Mount Sinai High School, illustrates the vital need to help those service members who are suffering from PTSD. 

Positive sentiments were expressed by members of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society.  Senior Tristan Duenas said, “The town did a wonderful job in replacing a poor piece of land and making it into a vital memorial to pay tribute to our veterans, especially those that have been inflicted by PTSD.”  

Junior Caroline Settepani added, “This statue demonstrates the major achievements of veterans like Dwyer that risked their lives to help people from different parts of the world.”  

Following her research, junior Madelynn Zarzycki believed “the project is also connected to the past negative treatment of the Vietnam veterans who received little support when they came home.”  

According to Zarzycki, “These veterans who fought in Southeast Asia faced a severe amount of PTSD challenges that impacted the rest of their lives. It does not matter when a soldier served in battle, these harsh experiences do not discriminate from one generation to the next.”  

Senior Chloe Fish recalled the former Oxygen Bar as a “detriment toward the beauty of this community. Now the Dwyer statue adds a new prospective of service to the downtown area of Rocky Point.”

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The Port Jefferson Elks donated funds, knowing it was going towards Comsewogue graduates in the military. Photo from CSD

Comsewogue staff, students and parents worked extra hard this year to not only make things the best it could be for their current students, but also for those graduates now in the military. 

“Since early December, we have been looking for partners in the community who could help us financially with some of our costs to send care packages around the world,” said teacher Andrew Harris. “It is a very hard time of year for local businesses, so we decided to ask our local Elks organization.”

Harris said that after a few weeks, the Elks organization told them they would contribute $500 buy gift certificates for those serving. 

“I was blown away because they too have had it difficult, but when I went to the lodge, I learned that these are very special people who were truly concerned about our local community and truly helping,” Harris added. “I have appealed to many large corporations only to be turned down. The Elks were delighted to be asked and give to us. They tend to do things one dollar at a time with each member donating their own hard-earned money.”

When Harris received the contribution, he went to the local Target where the store matched his initial $500. 

One of the most powerful items in the care packages are always the handwritten notes that the students send. At John F. Kennedy Middle School, teachers Dave Anzini, Katy Dornicik and Melissa McMullen decided to make great lessons out of creating the letters. 

“The essence of a strong writing program is one that engages students in authentic, meaningful experiences that not only build their skills as writers but invites them to wield their writing as a powerful tool for the greater good of society,” McMullen said. “They were powerful, indeed, as one of the moms whose son was to receive a package said, ‘I was just looking into the bag you dropped off for Ryan. After reading the wonderful letters I started to cry. Please thank your students and let them know how proud and thankful I am as Ryan’s mom for their kindest and the awesome letters they wrote and pictures. I know Ryan will love them and will enjoy them. They will be put in his memory box to share with his friends and family always.’”

Some of the students wrote inspiring messages asking lots of questions about what life was like on an aircraft carrier for example. Six grader Sophia Nielsen said, “I’m very grateful to the soldiers. They’re such amazing people. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. They save so many people’s lives and risk their own life for us. I wish them the very best. Stay safe and healthy. You deserve the best. Thanks for your dedication and support!”

Comsewogue alumn LCpl Paul Piotrowski is currently stationed overseas. Photo from CSD

When one military member and graduate LCpl Paul Piotrowsk received his care package and letters. He was delighted, and texted from an undisclosed location overseas to his former teacher Ms. Droge (Dornicik), and her students, that it meant a lot for him to receive his gifts and letters from them and how much he appreciated it. He is currently a Marine working hard as a crew chief and operator of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle.

Even former students were inspired to get involved. Arianna Morturano, a 2019 graduate, decided to help out by selling holiday items to help fundraise.

 “After growing up in this very amazing community, I wish to give back to those who serve and protect. My former classmates are selfless, brave and the true embodiment of what it means to be a warrior. They deserve to be honored for their service,” she said.

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said giving back to those serving is a great experience for the students.

 “It is such a great lesson for students to see how empowered they feel when they can do something for others,” she said. 

“These actions made such a big difference for those military graduates that they have a direct connection to.  I am proud to be part of such an outstanding team!”

Courtesy of Comsewogue School District and Andrew Harris 

Photo by Kyle Barr

By Rich Acritelli

Through these daunting times, the men and women in the Armed Services have always made this nation proud of their efforts to protect, preserve and promote the ideals of this nation at home and abroad.

Earlier this month, Tommy Fricke and his workers from Fricke Memorial added a tribute to the Rocky Point Veterans Square on the corner of Broadway and 25A — another reminder of national service to local residents — through the Combat Medic Joseph P. Dwyer Statue.  

This statue of Dwyer identifies the terrible impact of post traumatic stress disorder on combat veterans that have returned home after being involved in serious fighting. Since 1915, this recognized brain trauma, from the impact of fighting on a soldier was identified as “shell shocked.”  

There was no significant counseling that was offered by the government to properly treat millions of men and women from these different conflicts. Little was offered in therapy to the veteran that had fought over the skies of Europe, or who landed at D-Day, or through the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific and Asia. 

In many cases, veterans were told to forget about their experiences, go home, get married, attend college, find a job and start a family.  

Photo by Kyle Barr

It is highly possible that many of the people who drive by the Dwyer Statue had family members who had no significant help to deal with PTSD. Some men and women had nightmares, outbursts, flashbacks and were in dire need of mental and physical attention that was not provided to them. 

According to the Veterans Administration, the most recent Gulf War veterans that served during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have been inflicted from 11-20 veterans out of every 100. During Desert Storm, the figure is 12 out of every 100 veterans have suffered from PTSD.  

And these numbers are staggering for Vietnam veterans, who at one point in their life had to deal with the enormous pressures of their service. It is estimated that at least 30% of Vietnam Veterans endured PTSD.  

This new statue focuses on the strength of American service, and the responsibilities of our government to care for all the members of the Armed Forces when they return home.  

As a child, Dwyer attended elementary school at Infant Jesus in Port Jefferson and graduated from Mount Sinai High School in 1994. As a young man, he enjoyed playing golf and going fishing with his friends and family. After he left high school, Dwyer moved to North Carolina with his parents and was employed at a local hospital where he transported people who needed medical treatment. 

According to his older sister Kristine, Dwyer was a peaceful man who always wanted to care for others.  When America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, after watching the assault on this nation, he tried to enlist that very day into the army but had to wait until Sept. 12. He eventually graduated from Basic and Advanced Individual Training from Fort Benning, Georgia, where he became a combat medic.  

Shortly after finishing his training, Dwyer was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he vaccinated soldiers that were deployed overseas. On Feb. 15, 2003, he married his sweetheart, Matina, in Troy, North Carolina.  

When President George W. Bush (R) ordered American soldiers to be sent to the Middle East to attack Saddam Hussein and Iraq in 2003, Dwyer replaced a single mother, so that she was able to remain home with her child. He was one of the first soldiers to enter Iraq during this war with the 37th Cavalry Regiment. 

Joseph Dwyer in uniform. Photo from Dwyer family

While Dwyer told his family that he was being deployed to a hospital in Kuwait, they had no idea that he was with the leading army units that were on the road toward Baghdad — it wasn’t until the media began to run stories of his actions saving a child when they realized he was serving in Iraq.  

This well-known picture of Dwyer carrying a young child to safety was published and reported across the nation, and around the globe.  But to the day he died, Dwyer repeatedly stated that there was another combat medic that played a pivotal role in saving the life of this young boy. 

It was a difficult deployment for Dwyer who was constantly under attack, lonely and unable to sleep.  An exhausted Dwyer began inhaling computer cleaner Dust-Off to help him sleep a few hours before going back onto duty.  

On June 20, 2008, Dwyer left Iraq and traveled alone to Fort Bliss to eventually meet his wife, where they set up their home. A month later, the couple headed back to Mount Sinai, where he enjoyed the reunion with his family, friends and teachers.  

Right away, his sister realized that he was grossly underweight. He lost over 40 pounds during his time in Iraq. While Kristine cherishes the moment of seeing her brother after his deployment, she is not sure of his true joy, due to his unknown PTSD condition. 

Once he was at home, Dwyer was continually impacted by the issues of his PTSD condition. There were points that when he was driving, that Dwyer feared possible unexploded ordinances that were on the roads. He never held the feeling of personal safety, had disturbing visions, and for the rest of his life, this peaceful man had no personal peace after he served in Iraq. 

Kristine noticed a stare that developed in her brother who always wanted to be outside. Matina observed that her husband never liked going out to dinner, he closely watched the other customers, and always kept an eye on the door. Dwyer eventually gained his discharge from the service, but it was a battle to fight the government to receive his full disability compensation. During his service at home and when he left the army, Dwyer was still unable to sleep, and he continued to inhale Dust-Off.

By the end of his life in 2008, he did not have family members living with him and was unable to hold onto his own mental state. 

The picture that was widely presented across the nation and in different parts of the world was indicative of the kindness of Dwyer, even as he dealt with the horrors of his own personal concerns.

Until he passed away, it was important for Dwyer to have his story truthfully reported that presented the negatives of PTSD, and how it drastically changed the mental state of this peaceful citizen. On June 28, 2008, Dwyer died from the inhalants that he used to cope with the severity of his PTSD. 

Dwyer and his family. Photo from Dwyer family.

In speaking about the memory of her husband, Matina firmly recalls how he always sought to help others with an immense amount of love. This affection was especially demonstrated to his then two-year-old daughter who was called his “little princess.”

Meagan K. Dwyer is now 14 years old with a memory that lives on through family stories and pictures of her father.  

At the end of World War II, the historic Flag Raising at Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, was a similar picture that showed the resolve of American service overseas. 

When Ira Hayes, a marine that hoisted this flag during the earliest moments of this terrifying battle, came home, he suffered from PTSD where he drank heavily and agonized over his fellow marines and friends that died on this island. A short time later, he died from excessive drinking. 

Although Hayes passed away nearly 67 years ago, his story is connected to Dwyer. Both veterans were widely documented through a historic picture that rapidly received national acclaim from Americans across this country. 

But the hardships of PTSD never discriminate from one soldier or conflict to the next, and it is vital for this government to always perfect its ways to help combat veterans. 

It was a muggy Saturday morning at Washington Memorial Park Cemetery in Mount Sinai, May 23. Across lawns dotted with inset grave markers, small flags were listless in the stagnant air. There, while COVID-19 has meant many could not participate in the large, standout flag planting ceremonies normally seen the weekend before Memorial Day, families, friends, Boy Scouts and active service members still found ways to honor those who are buried there.

Adam Morris, bottom right, helps his family and friends, clockwise from bottom, Bailee Morris, Skye Sherrard and Jocelynn Morris plant flags. Photo Kyle Barr

Riverhead residents Bill Merker and his son Zach visited the grave of Glen “Doc” Moody Jr., an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who had passed away April 8. His grave was still packed with fresh dirt and had not yet even received the stone marking his name on his grave. 

“He was a very big inspiration for us,” said the younger Merker, a member of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets program who said Moody would teach them about medical procedures.

Moody, of Miller Place, had been featured in a previous article in TBR News Media papers. The marine veteran had been active helping his fellow veterans adjust to life outside the military and had been active with the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation, which helps provide service and therapy dogs to veterans. Moody, who passed at the age of 39, had his own service dog, a red fox Labrador named Independence, who never left his side.

Scattered around the park were others helping to plant flags. Ray Langert, one of the groundskeepers at the cemetery, helped one group of folks looking to plant flags at veterans’ graves. 

Adam and Melora Morris, of Mount Sinai, joined with their children and friends to come out to Washington Memorial to plant flags. They said while they regularly attend the flag planting ceremonies at Calverton National Cemetery, federal orders to ban large gatherings at the cemeteries put a squash to those plans. 

Ray Langert, who works at Washington Memorial Cemetery, looks over his parent’s grave. Photo by Kyle Barr

It was a sentiment shared all across the North Shore with people trying to offer memorials to those passed. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), who had petitioned the federal government to allow the large-scale flag planting events at places like Calverton, still offered condolences and remarks. Bellone also thanked the health care and essential employees continuing to work through the Memorial Day weekend.

“This day is unlike any other we have seen in modern times,” Bellone said. “We could not gather the way we normally do … But we did come together today to recognize, make sure we are honoring those really precious individuals in our community who have served and sacrificed.”

Some still managed to go to the Calverton cemetery to offer what services they could. Members of the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 went down that Saturday morning to place flags and host small services. 

On Memorial Day, May 25, the VFW hosted a small ceremony in the park behind Tilda’s Bakery in Rocky Point. In Sound Beach, community leaders placed a wreath at their own vets memorial on New York Avenue.

Despite restrictions and the need for distancing, it’s still hard to estimate how positive the impact is in memorializing those who’ve passed. Langert’s own father and mother, Robert and Elsie, are buried in the mausoleum on the grounds of the Washington Memorial Cemetery. Robert was a U.S. Army veteran who passed in 2005. The Morris family and friends offered to place a flag by his father’s stone in the mausoleum. 

“He would have loved to see that,” Langert said, sitting in his lawnmower’s seat with a smile. “He would have been ecstatic.”

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.

Members of the Sound Beach Fire Department at the Memorial Day commemoration 2019. Photo by Kyle Barr

Even as County Executive Steve Bellone (D) awaits word on a possible policy change that would enable flag placement on Memorial Day for veterans buried at National Cemeteries, he has partnered with 15 non-veteran cemeteries to schedule flag placements on Saturday, May 23.

The County will work with local Boy Scout Troops and Veterans organizations to conduct the flag placements.

The Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency is working with local Boy Scouts to identify the sites for flag placement and with the Suffolk County Health Department to create safety procedures that will meet state and federal guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who are placing flags to honor veterans will pick up flags at safe distances of six feet and will be required to wear face coverings.

Bellone is asking the Department of Veterans Affairs to donate the thousands of flags it purchased that would typically show appreciation for veterans at national cemeteries.

The county executive wrote a letter last week to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, requesting an amendment for the suspended honors at Calverton National Cemetery and Long island National Cemetery. Suffolk County has more veterans than any other count in New York State.

“This plan demonstrates that we can safely conduct group flag placements to honor our Veterans while protecting the public health,” Bellone said in a statement.

The participating cemeteries are:

• Washington Memorial Park Cemetery, Mount Sinai

• Union Cemetery, Middle Island

• St. John’s the Evangelist Cemetery, Riverhead

• Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, Southampton

• Mt Pleasant Cemetery and Crematory, Center Moriches

• Huntington Rural Cemetery, Huntington

• Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Coram

• Queen of All Saints Cemetery, Central Islip

• First Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Southold

• Shaarey Pardes Accabonac Grove Cemetery, East Hampton

• St. Ann’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, Sayville

• North Babylon Cemetery, Babylon

• Babylon Rural Cemetery, Babylon

• St. Patricks Cemetery, Smithtown

• Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery, Dering Harbor

Mary Ann Fox stands behind veteran Jack Grady, her proofreader and historical expert. Photo by Kyle Barr

It’s been little less than a year since Mary Ann Fox, of Leisure Glen in Ridge, finished her book of veterans in her own small community, titled “Proudly We Served.” 

There are a few hundred homes in the 55-and-older gated community of Leisure Glen,  and the stories of 63 veterans of that community lie within those pages, tales of both horror and heroism, of people who constantly and consistently told her they were proud to serve their country, hence the book’s title. 

The 63 veterans and their families from Leisure Glen in Ridge whose stories were published in a book by Mary Ann Fox.
Photo from Fox

In the time since the book was officially released last April, 325 copies have been printed, and Fox  has brought her books and those stories to local vets groups, schools, libraries and other civic-type groups.

But the time since her book’s release has also been heartbreaking. She has seen several of those men whose lives were memorialized in the pages of her book pass away.

On April 28, 2019, she held a ceremony in Leisure Glen that displayed her work to a packed room, including several elected officials. Just two months later, one of the vets, Andy Estrema, died. His story is one of the most harrowing described in the book. As a Marine during the Korean War, he fought in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where soldiers struggled against not only enemy machine guns but also a bitter cold that reached as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. He fought off waves of the enemy that struggled up the hill in the face of American machine gunners. He fought barefoot and lost all of his toes from frostbite. He was shot and injured during the battle in his lower back and only survived thanks to the men who fought alongside him.

Yet, Fox knew, this was the reason she wrote the book. The stories of those 63 veterans from Leisure Glen would, if not etched in stone, be forever contained in the glossy pages of her book. It would remain in the hands of the veterans’ families for as long as they could keep it.

“I felt very privileged,” she said. “They were sharing stories with me [that] some had not even shared with their family.”

She had been invited to Estrema’s military funeral, where she sat with the family as the ceremonial officers snapped the flag 13 times into a tight triangular fold. There, she said she could  not help but tear up knowing the honor she was witnessing for the first time, firsthand. 

Though it was the first military funeral she personally experienced, it wouldn’t be her last in the several months since her book was released.

That is the reality of the book she wrote, as she knows the stories contained within would outlast the men who told them. It has become a boon for the families whose loved ones have served, helping to prompt conversations about such events that they had rarely experienced before. Even during the writing process, Fox saw the effect that simply listening could have. 

“They were waiting for someone to say, ‘I know you served in World war II …’ [I say] you served your country, tell me what you did, tell me your story and let me weave it into a story of your service to the country,” she said. “I say ‘tell me what you want me to write.’”

The Writing Process

Fox never had it in mind to write a book such as this. Before retiring, she owned a travel agency in Middle Island. She retired and moved to North Carolina in 1998. After 12 years, when her husband passed, she decided to move back to Long Island to be closer to her daughter, picking a spot quite close to the center of Leisure Glen.

It was 2018, Memorial Day, and American Legion Post 352 held a meeting at the gated community that would etch the idea in Fox’s mind. 

“She heard our voices before our voices were stilled.”

— Jack Grady

The post commander said that one should get to know the stories of the veterans around them, because come Memorial Day next year, many would not be around any longer, their lives and stories taken by the march of time.

“He said, ‘Look at us, we get smaller in number every year, and we’re not going to be here forever.’” Fox recalled. “And then he finished by saying, ‘and you know what and nobody is going to know we were here.’”

It was the first time she had ever even thought about publishing a work such as that. 

Before writing the book, she said, like most people, she had no real idea just what it was to have gone through war. Listening to their stories, she said she could tell just what kind of person it requires to go through that experience. Some stories hit her hard, such as Estrema’s. He had written everything out himself, what ended up being five pages in her book. During their conversation, she had to excuse herself. 

“I went into the bathroom and I cried my heart out,” she said. “What they went through in this battle … he thoroughly believed that somewhere in battle, the blessed mother came to him — a very religious man, and he was until the day he died.”

With the massive number of interviews under her belt, with the piles and piles of notes on her desk, she quickly learned she needed somebody to help her unpack all the jargon and help her with grammar. That’s where Jack Grady came in, a 93-year-old World War II Army vet who also sees himself as an amateur military historian. Fox would drop off the pages to him, and then a day later he would call her back to give her the pages dotted with red pen marks and questions, asking her to go back and confirm some information with those fellow vets.

Before Fox, he said he had never been asked much about his own story. In his mind, it is mostly du to people’s desire to move on from such grave history.

“It was in the past,” Grady said. “The war was over, and of course we had Korea and, unfortunately, Vietnam, so World War II faded into [the] distance … it’s not that people were callous or anything, but they have their own concerns, and they don’t want to listen to these kinds of things unless somebody broaches the subject.” 

The elder veteran looks at the book now as a testament, a means to forever keep their stories alive.

“We’re gone, almost,” he said. “She heard our voices before our voices were stilled.”

If Fox couldn’t talk to the veterans themselves, such as several who had recently passed, she received their stories from their wives. She got to know the tales of so many vets, and in writing the book, many of those family members finally got to hear the story of their service. After doing the first stint of a two-day interview with Korean War veteran James Dragone, his daughter followed Fox outside, quickly wrapping her arms around her with tears in her eyes. Fox thought, at first, she must have done something wrong, asked the wrong question or said the wrong thing, but then the daughter started thanking her, saying it was the first time she heard that story of her father.

“Her contribution to her community has been very significant — it was a labor of love you rarely see.”

— Jane Bonner

Each of the stories tells not just of a man, but a man within a community. It speaks of their children and grandchildren, of men like Daniel Testa, a Korean War vet’s amazing homemade mozzarella. Dragone’s story says Leisure Glen members knew him as the Flag Man because “for 20 years he raised and lowered our flags daily.”

Why had they not talked about it before to their families? Fox said in many cases it was the past, and these men wanted to move on.

“The World War II men — they saw so much they wanted to put it behind them — they were still young men — and start their life,” Fox said. “The Korean War veterans — they, I think, pretty much felt the same … The Vietnam veterans, they came home wounded, mentally, physically, but mostly mentally.”

Of the three wars covered in the book, the Vietnam War section is the shortest. She thinks that was due to the war they fought, and the things they must have witnessed during the fighting, and most simply they were proud to serve.

“There’s a Vietnam veteran in there who has three Purple Hearts, and when I introduced him at the ceremony, the one thing he asked me to do was not mention that,” she said. “They’re not looking for any glory.”

Ceremony and Reaction

At last year’s ceremony, which finally displayed more than a year’s worth of effort, a packed crowd listened to the introduction of all service members included in the book. The ceremony was joined by Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and a representative from U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin’s (R-NY1) office. 

Little less than a year since then, Bonner said seeing all the work that went into such an event, and all the effort Fox put into the book, it was hard to come away not being dazzled by her efforts. 

“I was just so impressed by her passion to undertake something like this,” she said. “Her contribution to her community has been very significant — it was a labor of love you rarely see.”

The book is a coil-bound glossy print, with a cover designed by her daughter. The ceremony’s program cover was designed by Carl Schmidt, a 95-year-old World War II veteran who was Fox’s first interview.

The event was officiated by Monsignor Charles Fink, himself a Vietnam veteran and the author of the famous poem “Bury Me with Soldiers.” After all names were called, Fink was recognized for his service, and once Fox said the Catholic priest was a Purple Heart recipient, all men who could stand stood, and all applauded.

Fox has taken her book nearly everywhere it has been requested, including Comsewogue and North Shore public libraries, the Tesla Science Center, the Long Island State Veterans Home and Albert G. Prodell Middle School for their annual Living History Day last May. She said she plans to attend this year’s event and hopes to bring with her a veteran from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. She also hopes she may be able to start a letter-writing campaign between the students and veterans.

Last year at the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, she was also awarded a plaque for her work by the Town. 

“They were sharing stories with me [that] some had not even shared with their family.”

— Mary Ann Fox

Joe Cognitore, the Rocky Point VFW post commander, called Fox “a very dedicated woman.” She came to one of the VFW’s meetings last year with several of the vets described in her book, and a few even decided to become members of Post 6249. He had even seen her at the Long Island Veterans home, handing out ornaments to some of those living there.

“I couldn’t thank her enough for all her work of preserving veterans’ history, especially the World War II veterans,” Cognitore said. 

Before it was printed, two publishers were interested in the book, but the issue was it would have taken six to seven months for them to produce a finished product. For the veterans whose stories needed to be told, she knew she needed to print as soon as possible. Since April 2019, Estrema, Dragone and several other vets or their wives who provided the stories for the book have passed away. She knows she made the right choice, and she currently plans to keep it self-published with any additional printings.

Grady said Fox was one of the few people who could pull off a work like this, but of course, there are always more stories to tell.

“Most fellas don’t want to talk about those things, and it takes prodding to get the story done,” he said. “Mary Ann did 60, and I bet you she could do another 30 who didn’t answer the original ad.”

The VFW has asked if she could do a similar work for them, but she is still unsure since the men whom she wrote about in her book were from her own community, and it would be different venturing out to neighboring places. In Leisure Glen, newly arrived residents and others who did not originally respond to the first book requests have asked if they too could be included in later editions, and she said she is still trying to wrap her mind around what could be next. 

For now, she’s simply looking to spread the stories of the veterans, her friends, the members of her community. She hopes other people look to the veterans in their communities and look to learn their stories as well.

“To be honest, before the book, I didn’t really grasp the concept of what these men went through,” she said. “You have to sit across from them, you have to see it in their eyes, and it just comes pouring out.”

From left, Presiding Officer Robert Calarco, Suffolk County Council VFW Commander Dave Rogers, Dori Scofield, Legislator Sarah Anker, VFW Post 6431 Commander Sabrina Lacy, Legislator Susan Berland, Cathie Norton Doherty and Ina Casali announce the new Suffolk veterans resource guide. Photo from Anker's office

Long Island has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country, with Suffolk County as its heart, and with so many vets resources spread throughout the Island, Suffolk has looked to create a comprehensive guide to help navigate the breadth of supportive services.

County legislators, along with veterans and support groups, unveiled the new Suffolk County Veterans Resource Guide Feb. 11 that they say will make it easier for veterans and their families to search for available benefits and opportunities that may otherwise be missed. The Veterans Resource Guide is an informational book that supplies contact information to military veterans and their caregivers.

The guide was created as a result of legislation that Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) introduced last year.

“We have an obligation to ensure that our veterans have quick and reliable access to the services on a moment’s notice, and that is what this resource guide accomplishes,” said Anker. 

Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency already has a wealth of resources, including benefit programs with information on disability compensation, pension, education, vocational rehabilitation, home loan guarantee, life insurance, legal assistance and state benefits that offer Vietnam veterans tuition, Persian Gulf veterans tuition and veterans tax exemptions.

The guide offers contacts for food assistance opportunities, health service, emotional services such as the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support group and even the number for every town tax assessor.

In addition, the county provides assistance with filing claims for benefits from federal and state agencies, filing DD-214 (discharge papers and separation papers) and in-home visits to assist the housebound veterans with claims.

“This is a very important program, so many veterans get out and don’t know where to go — not just for benefits or county programs, but also for unique programs that offer help to women veterans, LGBTQ Veterans, and those with special needs,” said Dave Rogers, Commander of the Suffolk County Council VFW.

The guide is available online as well as printed. People looking for the guide can contact Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency by calling 631-853-VETS (8387) or going to www.suffolkcountyny.gov/veterans for Suffolk County veterans services.

For online access to the Veterans Resource Guide go to www.suffolkcountyny.gov/Portals/4/docs/SuffolkCountyVetGuide.pdf.

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Rocky Point natives Gerard and Diane Hahn are honored along with three other siblings for service in the armed forces. Fifty other veterans were honored on the high school Veterans Wall of Honor. Photo by Kyle Barr

In Rocky Point, it’s hard to find a family without at least one armed service veteran as a family member.

As the Rocky Point High School band played out military tunes during a Nov. 15 assembly honoring vets, Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 Commander Joe Cognitore read off each branch of the armed service based on the music playing. Veterans and their families stood up, but it wasn’t just the visitors, students stood up as well. For both the men in service caps to the kids in T-shirts and jeans, service to country runs deep.

People take pictures and point to names of family members on Rocky Point HS Wall of Honor. Photo by Kyle Barr

It’s a testament to the number of veterans and veteran families in Rocky Point that this year the district added 50 additional names to the high school’s Wall of Honor, which was constructed last year with just under 60 names of veterans who were from Rocky Point or graduated from the district.

Social studies teacher Rich Acritelli was the major driving force between the wall and its update. He sunk considerable time and resources into fundraising and getting the updated plaques on the wall, working alongside fellow teachers, administrators and the school’s Varsity Club.

“In less than two years, the entire main hallway of the social studies wing will be full of people from the armed forces who sat in the same chairs, played in the same gym and fields, performed in school plays, band and chorus as you do,” Acritelli said to the assembled students. “These are people who played on the same blocks as you did.”

Some families had more than one person in the armed services. The Hahn family, all Rocky Point natives, had five siblings whose pictures now hang up on the wall. Gerard and Diane Hahn flew back home to their roots to accept the honor on behalf of their family.

“Our reason for entering the armed forces was different for each of us,” Gerard Hahn said, who after high school had joined the Air Force as a munitions specialist. 

“For various reasons and in different branches of the service, we wanted to serve our country,” he said. “Regardless of which branch, we were all proud of our service and our combined over 40 years in the military.”

Diane Hahn, Gerard’s sister joined the Army after she graduated in 1982. She said she joined the military, already having an interest in computers, spending five years in active duty and six as a reservist in data. She now works as a government contractor with her own IT company in Washington, D.C.

The brother of Gregory Brons, a veteran who graduated Rocky Point in 1996 and studied physics from Syracuse University, said his brother joined the U.S. Army in the signal corps both at home and overseas. He moved to southern California to work in defense research and has become an activist for the LGBTQ community.

Greg Hotzoglou honors his brother Taylor, a veteran who died trying to stop an armed robbery. Photo by Kyle Barr

“He is a champion for the freedoms we live under,” he said.

This year’s updated wall also included the names of faculty, some who served and some whose families had been in the armed forces. Jerry Luglio, athletic trainer, came to the podium to calls of “Jerry,” by students. He served in the U.S. Submarine Corps during the Cold War. Anthony Szymanski, a business teacher at the high school, died in 2014 but was remembered for his service to both the school and U.S. Army.

Many veterans whose pictures hang on the wall in Rocky Point High School have given much, but some have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Taylor Hotzoglou was honored by his brother, Greg, who said the young man joined up and served in the 101st Airborne Division in 2007 and had been fearless in his wanting to protect his fellow soldiers, often volunteering for the gunner’s seat in Humvees, known to be the most targeted and dangerous position a soldier could take in a vehicle. Hotzoglou died when he returned to the U.S., as he tried to stop an armed robbery while outside of Fort Campbell Army Base in Tennessee.

“His attitude was, if it’s not me, then somebody else is going to have to go over there and suffer,” Greg Hotzoglou said. “He said, you know what, it should be me, I should go.”

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Rocky Point VFW during a 2019 Veterans Day Event. The Rocky Point VFW has donated to the Joseph P. Dwyer project, but that same initiative may be losing funds without federal aid. Photo by Kyle Barr
Rocky Point hosts a Veterans Day Event Nov. 11. Photo by Kyle Barr

Following nearly a month of going to different schools in the area prior to Veterans Day, the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249 held its annual ceremony Nov. 11 honoring those who’ve served, both those that are here and those no longer with us. They were joined by Rocky Point Boy Scout Troop 244.

“Veterans Day means much more than a federal holiday,” said post Commander Joe Cognitore. “It’s to make sure the men and women receive what they need.”