Hundreds of Long Island vets took part in the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency’s annual Veteran Stand Down on July 9 in Freeport. Stand downs are held twice a year, rotating between Freeport and Elmont, to support retired military personnel with a range of services.
The National Guard Armory in Freeport played host to the veterans, where they found representatives of the county’s Social Services and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the State Department of Labor, Department of Veterans Affairs and Division of Veterans Affairs, as well as the Salvation Army and Red Cross.
For Elmont native Ralph Esposito, director of the Nassau County Veterans Agency, the event is personal. He served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and recalled the post-war period as a time when veterans were left to fend for themselves.
“When we came home, we couldn’t even wear our uniforms,” he said. “It was heartbreaking.”
When he returned from the war, Esposito said he committed to never seeing another veteran treated the way he was. Esposito explained that since Suffolk County stopped sponsoring stand downs in 2012 — officials said that there was no more need for the outreach events since there were enough veterans services — the Nassau stand downs have seen more than 300 veterans from across Long Island.
“Nassau County will continue to strengthen our commitment to serving our vets and ensure dignity for all those who served our great country," Esposito said. He added that each stand down costs about $5,000 to run.
Esposito was joined by members of the Elmont Girl Scout Troop No. 1335, who volunteer to help him and his veterans at Elmont American Legion Post No. 1033. Girl Scout Natalie Becker, 12, worked beside volunteers from AHRC Nassau, a nonprofit agency in Freeport that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She passed out snacks to the veterans during the barbecue lunch.
“This is a great experience because I feel like I’m helping out my community,” Becker said.
"Through the Veterans Stand Down, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that every person who served the United States in uniform receives the resources they need to thrive,” said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams, of Freeport.
The event also included Battlefield Disciples, a nonprofit organization from Valley Stream that helps veterans recover from combat. It gave away about 200 hygiene kits that included socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shaving cream, razors and feminine products.
“Being able to support my fellow veterans is so important to me, but this stand down allowed me to connect with other services that can help me to know where we can send our guys,” said John Frias, a Marine Corps veteran and director and founder of Battlefield Disciples.
Many veterans consulted with agency representatives. Others came for the food. Still others waited for a complimentary haircut provided by students from Hempstead’s Barber and Beauty Institute of New York. Marine Corps Desert Storm veteran David Cornell, from Lynbrook, sat on the barber chair and said he was grateful to have all of the services available.
“We have a high veteran population in Nassau County,” said County Executive Laura Curran, of Baldwin. “Veterans have served our country, protected our freedoms. Anything that we can do to help them and give back we have to do.”
-Ronny Reyes contributed reporting to this story.