When Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy joined the Navy in 1957, the country was in a peaceful lull between the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
He admits his time in the service was not as “interesting” as those who saw active combat, but he, too, experienced a deep loss just as many other veterans have.
While aboard an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, a plane turned suddenly, far more quickly than the crew expected. The young Mr. Dunleavy hit the deck, and when he got up, he realized that his best friend had been blown overboard and killed.
“That’s the only thing I remember from my service — losing him right next to me,” he said.
Mr. Dunleavy was one of almost two dozen veterans or veterans’ family members who shared their military experiences at the Riverhead Free Library Tuesday night during a special event to honor those who served.
Laura LaSita, the library’s senior services coordinator, invited local veterans to speak and gave them small American flags ahead of Veterans Day, which falls on Wednesday. Korean War veteran James Lee, a member of the Riverhead Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, joined her onstage.
“They don’t fight wars in country clubs,” Mr. Lee told the audience. “In Korea, where I was, it was 20 degrees below zero in the winter and 100 degrees in the summer and it rained all the time.”
Several others spoke about their own experiences or about some of the challenges veterans face upon returning home. One veteran, John Sheahan, spoke only three words: “War is hell.”
The audience applauded Joseph Guiliano, who was awarded the Purple Heart in World War II, when Ms. LaSita announced his name, though he did not speak and instead gave a simple “thank you.”
Wilkens Young, who was stationed in Germany with the Army during peacetime, also lost a friend to an accident outside of combat when an amphibious vehicle sunk with his friend inside.
“That has affected my life drastically over the years,” he said.
Now, aware of the toll that comes with such loss, he works with Suffolk County United Veterans to aid veterans who are homeless, mentally ill or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m proud to have served our country,” he said. “I’m proud of those who gave it all. I carry all of them with me every time I get someone off the street, every time I get someone off drugs, every time I clothe one and feed one.”
At the event’s conclusion, Ms. LaSita and (other name) handed out American flags to the veterans while the audience sang patriotic songs.
“It’s great to be an American,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “We have these veterans and servicemen standing up for what we believe in: freedom.”
Top photo caption: James Lee (second from left), a veteran of the Korean War and member of Riverhead’s Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, told the audience, “They don’t fight wars in country clubs.” (Credit: Chris Lisinski)