“Fighting in Afghanistan was like Whac-A-Mole,” said Army Staff Sgt. Chad Ryals, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It’s rocky and mountainous there, and [fighters] would pop out of the mountains and use the terrain against us. A lot of my friends didn’t make it home.”
Ryals, a Louisiana native, enlisted when he was 17. Now 35 and a Glen Cove resident for five years, he said it’s important that combat veterans from the war in Afghanistan and the second Persian Gulf War be remembered — those who did not return home alive as well as those who did. He said he had wondered why it took Nassau County so long to add a monument to Veterans Memorial Plaza in Eisenhower Park for these veterans, and added that he was pleased with the decision.
Flanked by veterans, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran announced July 8 at the plaza that a bipartisan advisory committee would design and raise $100,000 for a new monument to honor county veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. County officials said they hoped to break ground on the memorial Oct. 7, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Afghanistan.
The memorial was established in 1947, two years after World War II ended. The plaza has grown ever since, with monuments that recognize those who fought in the Civil, Spanish-American, Korean and Vietnam wars.
“We’re proud that Nassau County is home to one of the largest veteran populations in the state,” Curran said. “There are 55,000 veterans who make their home right here in Nassau.”
Some 4,281 residents served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to census data. Twenty-one died.
“Our troops are coming home now from Afghanistan,” Curran said. “It makes sense that right now, more than ever, we ensure that present and future generations continue to appreciate the sacrifice that veterans have made for our nation.”
The county memorial committee has 12 members, five of whom Curran selected, five chosen by the Nassau Council of Veterans of Foreign Wars, one by the Nassau County Legislature’s majority and one by the minority.
Chris Peterkin, commander of the Bellmore Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2770, is forming an additional committee of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to work with the county’s committee. The VFW spearheaded the memorial, he said, because an active Afghanistan/Iraq war veteran organization does not exist. He urged volunteers to join, adding that they do not need to be VFW members.
Peter Wenninger, commander of the East Meadow American Legion Memorial Post 82, said he has not found any veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who want to become involved in the legion.
“I hand them my card and ask them to please come down to the hall, and I’m met with comments like, ‘How did you know I was a vet?’ and ‘Why did you come across the parking lot to talk to me?’” Wenninger said. “I get the feeling that they don’t trust and have some sort of PTSD.”
Ralph Esposito, director of the Veterans Service Agency for Nassau County, said veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq do not join veterans organizations because they have families and are looking for jobs to support them.
“These are all kids who aren’t interested in joining American Legions or VFWs,” said Esposito, of Floral Park. “We are in our 70s, from the Korean and Vietnam wars, for the most part. They don’t want to listen to a bunch of old guys talking war stories.”
Regardless, efforts continue to recruit younger veterans.
Ryals, who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, said he could understand why the veterans don’t want to talk. “It’s kind of a repressive memory, which causes constant stress,” he said. “It affects you mentally, and you can’t relax. You don’t want to think about it.”
Many veterans feel survivor’s guilt, he said. “They say talking about it helps, but it doesn’t,” he said. “I volunteer at a suicide hotline for veterans. I put myself out of my comfort zone to help.”
Virginia Cervasio, of Glen Cove, created Heroes Among Us, a nonprofit that serves veterans. She formed the organization in memory of her son, Angelo, 24, an Air Force Gulf War veteran who died by suicide in 2006.
Her nonprofit will donate $5,000 toward the monument. A member of Curran’s 12-member veteran’s advisory committee, Cervasio said she will do whatever is needed.
“This project is very close to my heart because I’m honoring my son,” she said. “This is the war he fought in and died. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t die there.”
“The only way you are truly gone is if you are forgotten,” Ryals said. The memorial “wouldn’t be for me. It would be for them.”