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East Meadow's new American Legion commander seeks to inspire vets

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Like many community groups in East Meadow, American Legion Post 1082 is trying to return to normal as the coronavirus pandemic drags on.

While members couldn’t meet through most of the summer, they held a service on Memorial Day, just two weeks after Commander John Devany died of complications of Covid-19. He was 72. 

Devany lived in East Meadow most of his life and served in the Navy in the Vietnam War. He was the post commander for three years. “He did a great job as a leader, and we’re very proud of him,” said new Commander Pete Wenninger, 50, who joined the post two years ago, under Devany’s leadership. “He stepped up everywhere he went, and left his footprints.”

Welcoming a new leader

Wenninger has been an American Legion member for 20 years, although he didn’t belong to a specific post until he joined 1082 in 2018. He was a national member, calling himself “kind of a nomad,” who traveled from town to town and attended meetings and events at various posts throughout his membership.

“The biggest misconception is that you have to dedicate yourself to one post when you become a member,” he said, adding that the American Legion was formed in France after World War I to foster a community for American soldiers stationed there. Wenninger said he still believes the organization serves as a means of connecting veterans, and every time he travels out of state, he makes a point of visiting the local post.

Originally from East Meadow, he served in the Navy for six years after graduating from East Meadow High School in 1978, and, he said, he regrets not serving longer. “I was young, dumb, and little did I know as a young man the great service I was doing,” he said.

When he came home, he took care of his single mother and worked in the telecommunications industry. He started as a truck driver before taking on different technical and engineering roles at various telecom companies and then working as a Network Center Analyst at Verizon Wireless, where he has been for the past 20 years.

In addition to becoming active in the American Legion, Wenninger said that he discovered his leadership and public speaking skills through his involvement in the Patriot Guard Riders, which he joined in 2009. The national nonprofit was formed in 2005, as a response to protests at military funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church. After states began legalizing same-sex marriage, starting with Massachusetts in 2003, members of the church, which is headquartered in Topeka, Kan., began picketing military funerals to express outrage that soldiers fought to defend the LGBTQ+ community.

The Patriot Guard Riders started as a motorcycle escort service, providing a physical barrier between grieving families and Westboro members. “Our goal was to give the family and their fallen soldier the dignity and grace they deserved,” Wenninger said. “We wanted them to see love, appreciation and honor instead of the hate brought on by the protesters.”

Three years into Wenninger’s involvement with the group, the funeral protests waned, and the PGR expanded its mission to honor both military personnel and first responders and to support their families.

Preserving a home for vets

Post 1082 members Dan Carbonare and Bill McCrindle gave the Herald a tour in August 2018. At the time, the 120-year-old building, on Bellmore Road, had not seen many updates since the post acquired it in 1935. Lights flickered, paint had peeled off the walls, rooms were filled with clutter covered in dust and, after a storm, the building often flooded because of damage to the roof and the back door.

Post members have been raising funds to renovate it since they set up a GoFundMe page in May 2018, and community groups, residents and Eagle Scouts have held fundraisers as well, and helped the post make necessary renovations.

But most of its revenue comes from rentals to residents for christenings, charity events and other special occasions — all of which were on hold during the pandemic. And there are still many repairs that need to be made.

“Most of the time, brilliance comes out of problems,” Wenninger said. “When we resolve the problems, when we clean up the issues, everyone could move forward together.”

As businesses were permitted to reopen, the post began hosting events again. Eagle Scout John Polumbo, of East Meadow’s Troop 604, recently upgraded the backyard, adding a fire pit and new benches. And, as Wenninger spoke with the Herald, a family was setting up a balloon arch in the yard, where they planned to hold a birthday party the following day.

The post is also holding in-person meetings on the first Tuesday of every month at 11 a.m. Wenninger starts each meeting and service by saying, “If we didn’t have vets, we wouldn’t have this country. If we didn’t have vets, we wouldn’t have these freedoms. Thank a vet today and every day.”