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Veterans

Darryl St. George at a RAP Week press conference earlier this month. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Since returning home from serving overseas, a homegrown Northport High School teacher has devoted his free time to inspiring students, zeroing in on two specific issues.

Darryl St. George, a Centerport resident and United States Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, is the co-advisor of the Northport High School branch of Students Against Destructive Decisions and the advisor of Project Vets, a club that works to improve the lives of veterans once they return home.

“I love working with young people,” St. George said. “I find what I do in these clubs an extension of what I do in the classroom.”

St. George graduated from Northport High School in 2000 and earned his teaching degree from Marymount Manhattan College. He was in Manhattan when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred, and said the day instilled a passion in him to help his country.

“I had this sense that I really wanted to serve,” St. George said. Personal reasons held him back until 2009, when he enlisted in the United States Navy.

His first deployment to Afghanistan was in 2011. When he came home nine months later, he said he discovered that one of his former students from Northport High School had died of a heroin overdose, and his own brother Corey had started abusing opioid drugs.

A few months later, he lost his brother to an overdose from prescription medication, which “changed everything.”

St. George was honorably discharged from the navy after three years and returned to his job at Northport High School, where he became a co-advisor of SADD with Tammy Walsh, another Northport High School teacher.

“One of my colleagues asked me to run the club with her, and together, the club really expanded from three kids at a meeting to more than 50.”

St. George said he was able to get the club to take a more active role in Recovery, Awareness and Prevention Week.

“We felt that the drug epidemic was such a crisis that this club would be the perfect vehicle to help combat the issue,” St. George said. “Tammy and I are open and candid with the kids about our own history with this problem, and I think the kids are receptive to that kind of honesty.”

St. George said he finds working with SADD very fulfilling, and sees it as necessary. “Ultimately, my drive for getting involved is to do everything I can so that no family has to go through what my family did,” St. George said.

St. George and Walsh have been working on a SADD Summit, which they hope will help bring RAP Week-like programs to other schools on Long Island. He wants to change the culture in every school.

Aside from working with SADD, St. George is involved in another club in Northport High School called Project Vets.

He said this club has a two-pronged mission statement — to work with veterans and help them with the transition period once they come home.

“I am a vet, and I personally know many of my friends that have had difficulty transitioning back home,” St. George said. “But they are not looking for any handouts. This club explores how we can improve their transition period.”

Project Vets is only in its second year, and St. George said at the first meeting there was more than 60 students wanting to join.

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Fred Sganga, Sen. Flanagan and Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president of Health Sciences at Stony Brook University, smile after Flanagan received an honorary award at the Long Island State Veterans Home. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Veterans Day isn’t just another day on the calendar for those who served.

“I can’t speak,” said Armmond Bergeron while fighting back tears. The veteran was unable to put together more than a few words about the Veterans Day Ceremony at Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. “It hits me right here,” he added, pointing to his heart.

Veterans, religious figures, New Lane Elementary School students and Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) were among those who attended the home’s seventh annual Veterans Day Ceremony on Nov. 6. The home invited Flanagan to speak at the ceremony, as he is an avid supporter of veterans and the sacrifices they make or made for the nation.

“I consider myself very fortunate to have the liberties, freedoms [and] protections that I do because a lot of people that are sitting here today,” Flanagan said in an interview.

According to Fred Sganga, executive director of the veterans home, the ceremony honors the more than 42 million Americans who served the nation. He added that those who served the nation continue paying the price, even after their military service ends.

For the senator, how society treats people correlates to how veterans are cared for when they return home. Earlier this year, the home called upon the senator, seeking financial assistance — the Long Island State Veterans Home qualified for a $15 million construction grant to fund future projects. The home hoped to further assist its veterans by providing a lift system, upgrading the building’s elevators and renovating each resident’s room.

According to Sganga, the federal government agreed to provide $10 million and the state funded the rest of the money. Flanagan secured the rest of the money three days after the veterans home sought his help.

This is his 13th year representing the community and the veterans at the home — and his efforts earned him the name Guardian of the Long Island State Veterans Home, according to Sganga.

While Flanagan was met with cheers when he took the podium, it was the fifth-grade students from New Lane Elementary school in Selden who brought the veterans together. Many veterans joined the students as they sang a variety of songs, including “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Marines’ Hymn” and several others. Veterans like Bergeron even stood to clap and dance along as the students sang. Following the ceremony, the fifth-graders went through the crowd of veterans and shook their hands.

Korean War veteran Walter Muller added his thoughts on the ceremony, saying that it was wonderful.

Muller served in the war for 22 months, from 1954 to 1955. His fellow veteran Bergeron was too young to serve in World War II, but he said he helped rescue soldiers when he was able to serve. Like many veterans, the service was a special way to honor his sacrifices.

“I got a lot of things going down,” Bergeron said about his health. “But I’ll never get anything less than I got here today.”

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Members of the American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 stand at attenion in front of their headquarters on Port Jefferson’s East Main Street in the mid-20th century. The post is now based on Hallock Avenue in Port Jefferson Station. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive

Port Jefferson area residents have a history of serving their country, from the Civil War to more recent conflicts. The community also has a history of honoring veterans and military personnel.

The crew of the N-5 poses aboard the submarine. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive
The crew of the N-5 poses aboard the submarine. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village historical archive

Veterans Day has been celebrated since Nov. 11, 1919, when it was known as Armistice Day and marked the anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I.

It was expanded to honor all American war veterans in 1954, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although the fighting in World War I was overseas, there was an impact close to home. Port Jefferson saw action through sailors aboard the U.S. Navy’s coastal defense submarine N-5, also known as the SS-57. According to the village’s historical archive, that submarine conducted engine trials nearby and later patrolled the Long Island Sound, keeping watch for German U-boats.

Other Navy ships from the Atlantic Fleet passed through during that time as well, including the battleships USS New York and USS Louisiana, both of which maneuvered on the Long Island Sound and anchored just outside Port Jefferson.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower makes Veterans Day an official holiday. Photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Veterans Day is a time to remember all of our past, present and future members of the Armed Forces, but it was only about 60 years ago that President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially created the holiday we know today. Much happened on Nov. 11 even before it became a date of remembrance — there were significant losses and gains for our militaries during this month throughout history.

In the fall of 1776, Gen. George Washington was reeling from one loss after another that sent his army retreating from Long Island, Manhattan and across New Jersey toward Pennsylvania. It was a dark moment in the Revolutionary War for Washington to lose ground to the British, though he ultimately led the colonies to victory.

President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain
President George H.W. Bush rides in an armored jeep with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. in Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 1990. Photo in the public domain

During the Civil War, in November 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was summoned to Chattanooga, Tenn., to prevent a total collapse of Union forces against the Confederacy. As Grant headed into the beleaguered city, he saw northern forces terribly hurt from the nearby Battle of Chickamauga. President Abraham Lincoln sent 20,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac to aid the defensive and later offensive efforts of Grant to defeat the South in that region, and while the Confederates had been on the verge of gaining a huge victory, Grant opened up the “Cracker Line” to Chattanooga, with additional men, supplies and horses to deter the enemy. Grant’s calm and cool presence helped secure a much-needed victory for a thankful Lincoln, who saw the battle as one of the greatest tests of survival for the Union.

Eisenhower had his own recollections of this date through his experience leading the Allied Forces during World War II. As a new commanding general, he planned the mid-November 1942 allied landings of Operation Torch against the Germans and the Vichy French in North Africa. From Morocco to Algeria, untested American military troops drove to destroy the war machine of Germany. The chainsmoking Eisenhower eagerly waited in Gibraltar for news that his men had achieved all of their objectives against the enemy. Two years later, in the fall of 1944, Eisenhower looked eastward as his forces operated on a broad front against the Nazis in France. By that time, his armies were nearing the German frontier with the belief that their bitter enemy was about to surrender. Little did he know that Hitler was planning a final December offensive, which would later be called the Battle of the Bulge, to drive a wedge against the Allies on the Western Front.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush led the American efforts to destroy the strength of Saddam Hussein. That dictator had invaded Kuwait and was poised to attack Saudi Arabia, but the U.S. aimed to protect the Saudis through Desert Shield. Two weeks after Veterans Day, Bush was eating Thanksgiving dinner in the desert with the American military forces that eventually led the fighting into Iraq and Kuwait to defeat Hussein’s Republican Guard army.

Over the last 15 years, the United States has been in a constant state of warfare against aggressor and terrorist forces. From the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, American service members from across the country have tirelessly fought against an enemy bent on hurting our way of life. Currently, this mission has expanded over the skies of Northern Iraq and Syria to limit the growing expansion and influence of ISIS.

Americans should not neglect the “Forgotten War” veterans of the Korean conflict who bitterly fought against the communists during that Cold War battle, nor the Vietnam War veterans who honorably served for a decade in that Southeast Asian country.

May we always remember and honor our veterans from every American conflict, on Veterans Day and throughout the year.

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

Move is part of Stern’s Housing our Homeless Heroes initiative

Suffolk County seeks to help house veterans. File photo
Suffolk County seeks to help house veterans. File photo
Suffolk County seeks to help house veterans. File photo

Suffolk County lawmakers have taken another step toward putting roofs over homeless veterans’ heads.

On Sept. 9, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved the transfer of eight tax-defaulted properties to nonprofit agencies that will in turn convert them into affordable rental housing for veterans who are homeless or seriously at risk of becoming homeless.

The move is a significant component of Legislator Steve Stern’s (D) Housing our Homeless Heroes initiative, a multi-pronged legislative package aimed at battling the war against veteran homelessness in Suffolk. Officials have said there are about 750 Long Island veterans who are either homeless or who are expected to be homeless by the end of 2015.

Stern, who is the chairman of the county’s Veterans and Seniors Committee, said the law is a worthy initiative and way to truly give back to those who have served.

“I’ve always said that we all need to do our part in serving those that have served us,” Stern said in a phone interview Friday. “But it can’t just be marching a parade. It can’t just be waving a flag.”

The nonprofits involved would foot the construction bill through possibly more than $10 million in state and federal grant funding available for such projects, Stern said. Funding for the construction will be provided in part from the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program and United States Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME Investment Partnerships Program.

A total of 14 units of housing would be created among the eight properties that have been transferred, Stern said.

Two parcels in Central Islip will be transferred to the Concern for Independent Living for the construction of three single-family homes. Bay Shore-based United Veterans Beacon House has proposed to rehabilitate an existing home on a Copiague parcel, and build a single-family unit on a Yaphank parcel.

In addition, the Association for Mental Health and Wellness is proposing to build a new four-bedroom house for three senior disabled veterans and a live-in house manager on two parcels in Mastic; rehabilitate a house in Riverhead for one veteran family; and build a new set of four, single room occupancies for veterans on a parcel in Medford.

“As an agency committed to ensuring empowering people to overcome the impact of health and mental health disabilities, it is our intent to devote these houses to assist male and female veterans who have been affected by service-connected and post-service transition mental health challenges,” said Michael Stoltz, Chief Executive Officer of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness said in a previous statement. “I thank Suffolk County for partnering with our organization to further assist us in supporting our veterans.”

Stern’s hoping the first unit to be completed — the Copiague parcel — will be built within a year. “The timing is going to be very varied depending on the particular locations,” he said.

Housing our Homeless Heroes doesn’t stop at just housing. At the same meeting, the Legislature approved Helping Our Veterans lane (HOV lane) legislation, sponsored by Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip) and Stern. The legislation’s goal is to expedite veteran services within the county’s Department of Social Services.

Stern said many times, veterans walk into the county’s DSS for services they may typically need from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and they are “turned away.” He said it becomes challenge to get them to come back to a government assistance office. The HOV lane legislation would make it so that veterans who are seeking services at DSS would get paired with a veteran services officer. Their requests would be fast-tracked when the walk into the department — regardless of whether they’re at the right office.

“That’s very important here because veterans, too many of them, face too many challenges and time becomes very important,”
Stern said.

Stern said he’s proud of the enactment of Housing our Homeless Heroes.

“I have every reason to believe that it’s going to serve as model for the rest of the country,” he said.

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office

By Steve Bellone

Suffolk County is home to more than 90,000 veterans, the largest population of veterans in any county in New York State. They have selflessly served their country, in war and in times of peace, making sacrifices to ensure our safety and protect our way of life.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone makes his way down the marathon route in a previous running event held in the county. Photo from Bellone’s office

We all have a duty to make sure that veterans are not overlooked when they return to civilian life. Too often, veterans return home from service in need of our assistance and recognition for a job well done.

I am proud that the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and our many local veterans organizations work tirelessly to meet the needs of veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, lack of quality housing and job assistance. No veteran should have to fight another battle to receive needed services and adjust to civilian life.

The fact is, there is so much more we need to do to support our veterans. That is why I helped organize the first ever Suffolk County Marathon and Half Marathon to Support Our Veterans.

This event will kick off from Heckscher State Park, this Sunday, Sept. 13 and travel through many of our amazing downtowns. Every dollar that we net from this marathon will help fund services which will benefit our Suffolk County veterans community.

As a veteran myself, I will be participating in the event as one of the thousands running it. But, there are so many ways to be involved.

You can join in this effort to support veterans by running, volunteering or cheering on others who are participating in this great cause. In addition to the race, The Taste of Long Island festival will show off locally produced wine, food and drinks, with entertainment provided by bands made up of veterans. Among the thousands of runners are many veterans and active-duty members of the services.

I encourage you to go to www.suffolkmarathon.com to learn more about how you can be part of history and honoring our great veterans community. I look forward to seeing you out there.

Steve Bellone is the Suffolk County Executive.

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.”

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Stock photo

AMVETS Post 1998 in Port Jefferson Station is hosting a fundraising barbecue to support aging and otherwise needy local veterans.

The nonprofit’s annual BBQ will fire up on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 1 p.m. at the American Legion Post, 1450 Hallock Ave., Port Jefferson Station. There will be chicken, hot dogs, burgers, clams, drinks and dessert, as well as a Chinese auction and a raffle.

Tickets are $25 for adults, and kids under 12 are free. They can be purchased through AMVETS Post Commander Barbara Alt at 631-509-4151 or Post Historian Ed Bednarek at 631-331-3853. The tickets will also be on sale at the American Legion on the day of the barbecue.

Contact Alt or Bednarek for more information about the event.

Project is one of three slated for Huntington Station

A rendering of what the affordable veteran housing project on Depot Road and E9th Street would look like. A zone change is required to move the plan forward. Photo from Fred DeSanti

The Huntington Town Board will consider changing the zoning on its own motion of a Huntington Station property next month to make way for a veterans affordable housing project.

The proposal, which would be built on a quarter-acre vacant lot on the corner of Depot Road and East 9th Street, entails creating four, one-bedroom affordable units in a two-story building with a lobby, according to property owner Fred DeSanti. The town board is considering changing the zoning from C-6 Huntington Station Overlay District to C-1 Office Residence District to accommodate the project.

DeSanti said in thinking up ways to develop the property that he and his brother-in-law Douglas Quimby own both became interested in helping veterans while also doing their part to revitalize Huntington Station.

“We just thought this was a way we could do something good for the community [and] we could provide much needed housing for the veterans,” he said.

The town and the community, he said, received the project warmly. Joan Cergol, the executive director of the town’s Economic Development Corporation, said DeSanti approached her with the idea in part to contribute to the area’s face-lift while also giving veterans an affordable place to live. She said the town is supportive of the project.

DeSanti’s project isn’t the only veterans housing project slated for the area. VetsBuild is in the process of building the country’s first ever Department of Energy zero-energy home built by vets and for vets on Depot Road near East 5th Street, a project that is in final reviews at Huntington Town. Also, the town is working on pushing forward Columbia Terrace, a 14-unit affordable housing condo complex for veterans to be located at Railroad Street and Lowndes Avenue.

“There seems to be an organic appearance of veteran-based housing in Huntington Station, which is a welcome type of a development as we are pursing new development in the downtown area,” Cergol said.

Once it is completed, the VetsBuild project — a green project — will create and generate as much energy as it uses, according to Rick Wertheim, the senior vice president of green initiatives and housing at United Way of Long Island. It will accommodate five veterans with special needs.

Asked why build in Huntington Station, Wertheim said they liked that the area’s slated for redevelopment. The town board has been working with master developer Renaissance Downtowns to redevelop the area.

Building in such an area “gives the folks who live there the opportunity to walk to a really dynamic living experience as opposed to being densely nested in a residential area where they’re kind of cut off from everything,” Wertheim said.

Cergol said she believes the word is getting out about change in Huntington Station.

“I think that there’s a general sense of optimism and enthusiasm to be a part of positive change in Huntington Station,” she said. “Whether you are a government, a private property owner or a nonprofit … everybody is looking through the same kind of prism now.”

Supervisor Ed Romaine breaks ground where the two homes are being built for returning veterans. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Local officials joined Mark Baisch, president of Landmark Properties in Rocky Point, and Joe Cognitore, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6249, to celebrate the groundbreaking of two homes Baisch is building for returning veterans and their families.

Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) and Councilman Dan Panico (R-Manorville) attended the groundbreaking event, which took place on Aug. 20 in front of the property on Tyler Avenue in Sound Beach.

“We as a nation — we as a country, as a state, as a county, as a town owe them our thanks,” Romaine said.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Commander Joe Cognitore, Councilwoman Jane Bonner, Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilman Dan Panico pose for a photo before tying a ribbon around the oak tree that will rest between two homes being built and given to returning veterans. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Commander Joe Cognitore, Councilwoman Jane Bonner, Supervisor Ed Romaine and Councilman Dan Panico pose for a photo before tying a ribbon around the oak tree that will rest between two homes being built and given to returning veterans. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Bonner also commended Baisch for his efforts.

“Kudos to Mark for having the creative brain to come up with an idea and push the envelope, as you will, to create an opportunity to build houses for veterans,” Bonner said.

Baisch purchased the property two years ago and wanted to give back to the veterans by building two homes. These are Baisch’s ninth and tenth homes for returning veterans. The first home he built was also in Sound Beach, and was given to a veteran who earned a Purple Heart for his services.

“This is not something for the faint of heart,” Baisch said during the press conference.

Cognitore joined Baisch to help him execute his idea. As Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he took on the responsibility of selecting candidates for the two $249,000 homes.

In order for the veterans to qualify for the homes, they must be first-time homebuyers making less than $200,000 to $300,000 annually. The amount of time a vet served in either the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the size of the vet’s family and whether they received awards for their service are determining factors in deciding which applicants will receive the homes.

It is still unknown which veterans and their families will receive the homes.

“If you all go away with one thing, I want you to go and find me two veterans for these houses,” Baisch said. “That’s the most important thing.”