Riverhead’s new Veterans Committee is on a mission

JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | A member of the Riverhead VFW salutes the flag on Veterans Day 2013.
JOSEPH PINCIARO PHOTO | A member of the Riverhead VFW salutes the flag on Veterans Day 2013.

Liz Stokes recalled the day she asked about how Riverhead Town helps out its local veterans.

“I walked into Town Hall and said, ‘We have a handicapped committee, a parking committee, litter control. Do we have a veterans committee?’” she said this week. “I was told, ‘No. Do you want to start one?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I guess. I’ll start one.’

Now, the Veterans Advisory Committee — so new it isn’t even listed on the town’s website yet — has events already in the planning stages, less than a month away, in an effort to inform Riverhead’s some 2,000 veterans about benefits and resources available to them all in one place.

And more from the committee is coming on the horizon.

Created in July, the six-person advisory board will be hosting a veterans’ resource fair just four days after Veterans Day, on Nov. 15,  at the Riverhead Free Library.

Liz Stokes — the committee’s co-chair — said that the idea came about after her conversations with vets around town, many of whom she comes into contact with during her day job as head of circulation at the Riverhead Free Library. Ms. Stokes is one of the organizers of Riverhead’s Operation Forever Grateful in 2012, a dinner held at Polish Hall that recognized the town’s vets who have served since the Gulf War.

“I was speaking with an Iraq War vet recently and said, ‘You tell me. What do you need?’ and he said he needs a resource fair,” Ms. Stokes said. “I said, ‘OK. You got it.’”

The fair, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., will have representatives from the Northport Veterans’ Affairs clinic, for medial issues, Tuaro Law School, banks, the Department of Labor, Calverton National Cemetery, Long Island Cares, Suffolk County United Veterans, Comfort Dental, the town assessor’s office, and other organizations.

Ms. Stokes — the daughter of an Army veteran — said in speaking with local vets, some aren’t aware yet that they will be eligible for a tax break on the school portion of their tax bills, or that a new, smaller, V.A. clinic opened up in Riverside, at the county center, in the last few years.

The committee was unanimously approved in July by the Town Board due to a “need to create awareness of veterans’ issues, assess their needs, and recommend direction for increased services and resources,” according to the legislation creating it. In addition to Ms. Stokes and co-chair Kim Judd, the committee includes a pair of representatives each from the local VFW and American Legion. Ms. Stokes said that a rep from Suffolk County United Veterans may be added as well.

Councilman John Dunleavy, a Navy veteran who served at the start of Vietnam, namely on an attack carrier stationed in the Mediterranean, is the Town Board liaison to the committee.

“It was formed because we think veterans deserve something from the town because they’ve done a lot for this country,” said Mr. Dunleavy, who also helped organize Operation Forever Grateful.

In addition to next month’s resource fair, Ms. Stokes said the committee is also working on a few other projects.

Those include an effort to create a merchant discount card for Riverhead vets. Suffolk County’s Veterans Service Agency currently offers one to veterans countywide, with discounts at 116 businesses across Suffolk, according to the county’s website. However of those 116 businesses, only five Riverhead businesses — Roadhouse Grill, Safe-T-Swim, McGuire’s Hearing Aides, North Fork Trolley, and the Rail Road Museum of Long Island — offer discounts.

Ms. Stokes said she already has close to a dozen Riverhead businesses on board for a townwide card, and hopes to have it available shortly after the holidays.

In addition, Ms. Stokes and Ms. Judd — who spoke with the Town Board at last week’s work session in town hall — said that they would like to seek funds through a federal grant for recreational opportunities to veterans with disabilities. The town’s Veterans Memorial Park — which opened up last spring — came to mind as a natural fit.

Lastly and perhaps most ambitiously, the committee is hoping to create an oral history including as many of the town’s World War II and Korean War veterans as possible.

Ms. Stokes estimates that about 200 WWII and Korean War veterans live in Riverhead, and she hopes to “have something that tells their story of service” for future generations.

“It’s sad, because they are not going to live forever,” she said. “And we have to get these stories out.”