More than 300 people packed into Polish Hall Saturday night to pay tribute to about 55 local veterans of the armed forces who have served since the Gulf War in the early 1990s.
The event, called Operation Forever Grateful, was hosted by Riverhead Town and organized by Councilman John Dunleavy, along with Liz Stokes and Linda Hulse.
“It’s been written that a nation is known by the people they honor,” said retired Major General Anthony Kropp of Mattituck, who interrupted a vacation in Florida to speak at the event. “Riverhead should be very proud.”
“It’s nice to see appreciation,” said Corporal Bobby Peeker of Aquebouge, a 2007 Riverhead High School graduate who served four years in the Marines, in an interview outside Polish Hall. “It’s better than what he probably got when he was in the service,” alluding to his father, Bob, who served in the Marines in the 1970s and is now a Riverhead Town Police Lieutenant.
“It was a different era,” Lt. Peeker said. “I served from 1976 to 1980. It was right after Vietnam. Everybody had a bad taste in their mouth.”
Unlike his son, Lt. Peeker served at a time when the country wasn’t at war. Corporal Peeker said he has been involved in direct combat in Afghanistan.
Lt. Peeker said his brother and nephew are also Marines and were also present Saturday.
“We’re a bunch of Jarheads,” he said.
Also present Saturday was Marine Corporal Alfred Grossklaus Jr. of Aquebogue, a 2005 Riverhead High School graduate who was shot in the back and badly injured during an ambush by insurgents in Afghanistan last June.
He’s up an walking, although he said he still has “some issues” from his injuries. A Purple Heart recipient, he was discharged from the military in December.
“We definitely know we’re appreciated, but it’s nice to have something like this,” he told a reporter.
“It’s nice to do something like this,” said Staff Sergeant Michael Sclafani of Wading River. He served in Iraq and actually was inside Saddam Hussein’s palace.
“I think with the support for the troopers with the past two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, with that flood of support, that the older guys are starting to feel the support again,” said. “Guys from Vietnam that didn’t get the respect, are finally getting their due. It’s overdue, but it’s finally happening.”
“This was spectacular,” said Army First Sergeant Tim Wiwczar of Flanders, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and been stationed all over the globe, in an interview.
One of the featured speakers Saturday was Army Sergeant Sam Cila of Riverhead. He joined the New York National Guard’s “Fighting 69th” shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 and was badly injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq on July 4, 2005, that eventually led to the lower part of his left arm being amputated.
He said he felt “lost” and suffered depression following his injury, but pulled out of it with the support of his family and “teammates.”
Sgt. Cila has become a successful endurance athlete who has competed in Ironman triathlons and who, along with other wounded veterans, was last year asked to participate in a 100 kilometer bike ride with former President George W. Bush in Texas.
He also now works with various groups that help other veterans and recently became president of the Long Island Chapter of Canine Companions.
“The turnout is what I expected it to be because Riverhead loves its veterans,” said Ms. Stokes Saturday.
While some Vietnam veterans were unhappy that the Operation Forever Grateful didn’t include older veterans, Ms. Stokes said other events are planned.
“This is dinner number one,” she said. “Stay tuned, because more in coming.”