It is ironic that the Vietnam Veterans of America Suffolk County (VVA) chapter 11 has expanded from about 300 to 480 members in the past eight years while membership in American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts has declined. “When we came home, we were treated horribly,” VVA chapter 11 membership committee chairman Frank D’Aversa said of the mainstream service organizations.
“Our motto is that never again will one generation of veterans abandon another,” said D’Aversa, 71, of Hauppauge, “and we live by that.”
As part of their credo, chapter members monthly attend proceedings of the Suffolk County Veterans Courts in Central Islip and Hampton Bays and also visit inmates at jails in Riverhead and Yaphank. They have done so since the Veterans Court was established in Central Islip in February 2011. Others who go besides D’Aversa are Dave Sinclair, Ralph Zanchelli, Frank Carle, Clarence Simpson, Dan Eagan, Don Howe, Adam Jankowski, Tom Mack and Tom Greenwood.
A similar court was launched in Nassau County in November 2011. The purpose of the courts is to give veterans found eligible a chance to plead guilty to low-level offenses and get treatment for the underlying causes of their problems rather than jail time. Representatives of VVA’s Nassau County chapter 82 could not be reached.
“It goes back to when we came home; if a crime was committed, we went to jail,” said D’Aversa, who spent 34 years in the Navy and Reserves and performed aircraft maintenance on the carrier USS Ranger in 1965-66 off the coast of Vietnam. “We had no option, even for minor offenses. We don’t want to see that happen to these young vets that deployed multiple times that need jobs and places to live.
“Why do we go to the jails?” D’Aversa said. “To inform them that there is a Veterans Court, for one thing. We bring a social worker from the VA. We don’t ask them what their offenses are. We just try to make them aware of their benefits. We give ‘em our phone numbers. We served our country. They served their country. There’s a brotherhood.”
The Suffolk Veterans Court is presided over by Judge John Toomey, a former infantryman in Vietnam at age 19 in 1967. Its gatekeeper is Suffolk District Attorney Thomas J. Spota. D’Aversa said “We’re fortunate that the D.A. is a former Marine; he gets it. Judge Toomey was a combat vet in Vietnam, a machine gunner; he gets it.” D’Aversa said Suffolk Veterans Service Agency director Tom Ronayne, a Navy veteran, had asked for mentors for the court and “we were the only ones that stood up.”
D’Aversa said the VVA group goes to the courts every other week and that there usually are 15 to 20 cases involving veterans. “Most of them are male,” he said. “You still have Vietnam vets coming in but most are Iraq or Afghanistan vets or Gulf War (1991) or in between. Not all are combat vets. We want to make sure they’re taken care of and guided the way they should be. They risked their lives for our nation. They’ve earned the right to be treated [specially].”
He added that Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center employee Eric Bruno is a dedicated social worker liaison between the Northport VA and the court. “He sets up the health care that these vets need. They need various meds, counselling. Some have TBI [traumatic brain injury] or PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome].” (The president of VVA chapter 11, Richard Kitson, is director of volunteer services at the Northport facility.)
The chapter meets on the fourth Friday of the month at the Brookhaven Parks Office at 286 Hawkins Rd. in Centereach. Its website is www.vva11.org; it contains home phone numbers for dozens of members involved in committees that do outreach to groups such as female veterans and the homeless. The chapter has a benevolent fund that provides cash to veterans in need of food or heating oil. It also runs social events, publishes a newsletter and offers members for speaking engagements.
D’Aversa spoke at the Northport VA recently to a group of 11- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets Corps. “Myself and four others talked about our life experience,” said D’Aversa, who worked for Pan American and American airlines as a civilian, “and I talked about what I did in Vietnam.”
Chapter members also visit ill and disabled veterans at the VA and participate in adaptive sports with them. They refer homeless veterans to the Vets Place in Yaphank or United Veterans Beacon House for placement in a shelter and referral to job training, education and medical benefits. “It’s a great group of guys,” D’Aversa said. “It’s vets helping vets. Another of our mottos is ‘together then, together again.’ ”