Columns

Veteran Island

There is an affinity between veterans and haircuts, and Louis Cicero understands both.

He’s been cutting hair at his barbershop in the Heights since 1959. “I had an old-timer in here who fought at Iwo Jima,” Louis said. “Saw a lot of action at a young age. They open up in the barber chair and tell me their secrets and problems. They know I won’t tell anyone.”

Bill Dickerson, 95,  served in WWII, and weighed 113 pounds when he entered the Army in his prime at 19. He operated the 155-millimeter gun, a weapon with 96-pound shells, and a range of about twelve miles. “You could get off about five rounds in a minute if you worked really hard at it,” he said. “We could wipe out Riverhead from Shelter Island.”

Bill operated the gun at the Battle of the Bulge. When it malfunctioned,  he was struck in the head. Six months of recovery left him with no hearing in one ear, dents on one side of his head, and memories of his service that he’s shared with family and friends ever since.

In the last census, 2,392 people called Shelter Island home, and 381 of them were veterans. Add to that number the Islanders who are not themselves vets, but have a father, mother, brother or sister who served this country and you see the powerful influence of military service on Shelter Island, an influence that becomes obvious when veterans and their families tell the stories of their lives.

Although Betsy Durkin Mathes never knew her grandfather, who died at the battle of the Somme in World War I, or her father, a paratrooper in World War II who died at the Battle of the Bulge when she was three, their lives inspired her. “They were both officers who died while defending their men,” she said.

After a career as an actor and lyricist, Betsy, still haunted by the life of a father she never knew, wrote a book, “Forever is Not for Everyone,” to try and find meaning in her father’s story.

Town Councilman-elect Mike Bebon’s Air Force service gave him life and work experience that helped him become Director of Operations at Brookhaven National Lab years later, but it also kept him from his father’s side in his dad’s final days.

In 1975, Mike had been assigned to inspect a base in Texas built in World War II  to modernize it for the era of terrorism. “My dad had a heart attack and he was doing OK, and then he had another one and passed,” said Mike. “At least he knew we were coming back [to Long Island].”

Military service runs strong in Sara Mundy’s family, and its influence on her is evident, even though she chose a different kind of service — she works at the Senior Center. Her father and her brother Michael served in the Marines, brother Nathan is still in the Marines, and her sister Melissa is on the board of the Theinert Foundation, a charity established to support veterans and their families in memory of Joseph Theinert, who grew up on Shelter Island, became an officer in the Army, and died in Afghanistan protecting his men.

“Joe Theinert was very close to my father and my sister, and my brother Michael left for boot camp a month after Joe was killed,” said Sara. “I don’t think any of us slept the whole time Michael was there.”

Town Supervisor Gary Gerth’s father was in the army medical corps during WWII, and Gary enlisted in the Navy in the late 60s, when he was about to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

The first time Gary saw Shelter Island, he was in an Army helicopter, flying over the East End in late 1970s on his way from the Naval War College, to a base on Long Island. He said he’ll never forget the view from above of the emerald-green Island between the North and South forks of Long Island.

Gary later became Director of Veterans Services Agency of Nassau County, and worked to resolve cases for veterans who had been denied benefits, sometimes because of missing records. His agency was able to reconstitute many of those records, and get benefits to veterans and their families.

Dave Clark, the son and father of veterans, served with the Marines in Beirut and narrowly missed getting blown up in 1983, when a truck bomb destroyed the Marine barracks and killed 220 men. It wasn’t until his own son was deployed to Afghanistan that he understood how the family of a soldier feels.

“You don’t even think about it when you are over there. But the parents think about it every day,” he said.

He remembered when the barracks blew up it took about five days for his family to find out he was still alive.  “It took a few years off their lives.”