‘It’s so horrible, you can’t imagine it happening to your child, and you don’t want to think about it — but imagine how it feels when you can’t not think it.’
“I’m a father of six, but we did lose one. We’re angel parents. My oldest daughter, Kelly, was murdered in 1976 on Fourth of July weekend in Astoria, Queens, when a woman jumped into my car saying she was going to kill us, and the car crashed. It’s so horrible, you can’t imagine it happening to your child, and you don’t want to think about it — but imagine how it feels when you can’t not think it.
“We had five kids after that, but we always live with that tragedy. Growing up, I was an incorrigible kid, but I got straight A’s, 90s and 100s. I got a scholarship to Regis High School in Yorkville, which is one of the best schools, then went to Iona College on two scholarships. But this was all in the middle of Vietnam; I always wanted to be a Marine, so I dropped out of Iona and joined the Marines in 1971. I joined thinking I’d be going to war, but by the time I was trained, they had yanked the Marines out, so I didn’t end up going there or seeing combat. I still remember seeing soldiers my age coming home, getting off the plane and people would spit at them and trash them.
“In ’88, I went back into the Marine Reserves. I became a 36-year-old lance corporal, which is unheard of. They called me ‘sergeant major’ because I was such an old dude. We used to call soldiers over 24 ‘pop,’ so just imagine being 36. I finally became a staff sergeant when I got discharged in ’99. But when the first Gulf War came, I volunteered, but got stationed in the Midwest instead of the Middle East. I ended up doing volunteer work at a hospital in Kansas City. I worked with teenagers, running a group. There were some really sick kids there, mentally and behaviorally, and they needed help. It really mattered to me, so I said to myself, ‘You know what? Let me go into this racket.’ So I left the accounting job I had with the Defense Department, and I went back to school for psychology at University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1992.
I still stay involved, even though I retired from the VA three years ago. It’s a mission of mercy with my fellow vets.
“This started a 12-year educational journey that included getting my bachelor’s in psych, which I got at Columbia University, then a master’s in social work, and now I’m a certified alcohol-substance abuse counselor and an advanced social worker for military veterans and their families. My career covered handling things like addiction, group homes, places with people there on parole or probation. I ran a drug program in Harlem before ending up at a hospital in Hell’s Kitchen working in detox and the psych unit, and also worked the phones with those out in the field seeking coverage from insurance companies for medical treatments.
“Then I started at the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] in 2010, as a readjustment counseling therapist, working at vet centers. Vet centers are part of the VA but like ‘special ops’; we’re not at the VA hospital but in communities, like an outpatient place. They’re run by veterans, and we see any veteran, honorably discharged or not, eligible or not. We’d see combat vets with PTSD, with military sexual trauma, which is not confined to women, and provide bereavement for survivors, which is really tough when you get mothers, wives and kids coming in; we treat those three tracks. Not that we can’t treat vets for depression and anxiety, or alcoholism or addiction to things that are legal or illegal — we do all that — but that’s secondary to the three main lines. I also worked with the veterans court, which involved treatment in lieu of incarceration.
“I got involved with the FDNY counseling unit. Why? Because so many vets and reservists are cops or in the fire department, and some had worse PTSD from their jobs than from being in combat. I still stay involved, even though I retired from the VA three years ago. It’s a mission of mercy with my fellow vets. Plus, both my sons are Marines; my youngest did two tours in Iraq, and my oldest fought there, too. They’re both adversely impacted by that is all I’ll say.”
I was thrown a lot of curves in life, but I consider my old self lucky. I have an attitude of gratitude.
“I still do things for the church, for schools; I’m always donating to children. We also used to bring kids from Northern Ireland to our house for years during the Troubles. I worked with Toys for Tots for years. I’m a lifetime member of the Marine Corps League, western Long Island detachment. I’m with the local American Legion, and I go to every Veterans Day and Memorial Day event in my uniform. I help with whatever to raise money or to change or add somebody’s name to a monument. And I’ll tell you, if my old lady wasn’t telling me, ‘You’re not going,’ I’d be on a plane to Ukraine to help out there. Nothing happened to me as a kid to make me like this; I just have a keen sense of justice.
“I always have worked, maybe because as a kid we were poor. Before the first Gulf War, I did everything to make money for my family: I worked in the post office before quitting to become ‘Mr. Mom’; plus, I did construction, drove a truck, did demolition, installed garage lifts. Name a blue-collar job, I probably did it; plus, I played in my band while my wife worked, too. I was thrown a lot of curves in life, but I consider my old self lucky.
“I have an attitude of gratitude. I beat cancer twice. I have my kids and 12 grandkids, and I’m still playing Irish music every day. When I leave my daughter’s grave at the cemetery — where I should be buried, not her — it says, “A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.” I always liked that saying. But it doesn’t have to be just children. I always look out for that person sitting in the corner. I can tell they’re a vet because they’re checking the perimeter. I walk over, talk to them and give them my card. We do what we can do, right?”
Interviewed by Ian J. Stark