“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.”