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Local veterans salute fallen comrades

For many, Memorial Day caps a three-day holiday weekend that unofficially kicks off the summer season. But for veterans who served in the nation’s armed forces, labeling the last Monday of May a “holiday” doesn’t do it justice.

“Veterans Day is to honor all veterans; Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in service to our country,” said Vietnam War veteran and Cutchogue resident Jack Gibbons. “A lot of people look upon it as a holiday, but to me it’s a time to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice because they love the country and they love what the country stands for.”

For Charles Sanders, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, member of the New York Army National Guard and former commander of the Southold American Legion post, the meaning of Memorial Day is encapsulated in a painting that hangs above his desk in the Southold Town Assessors’ office, which depicts the first wave of Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.“A picture says a thousand words,” Mr. Sanders said. “If I think I’m having a crappy day, I look up and I see this picture. That’s what Memorial Day is about: never forget.”

In recognition of this year’s Memorial Day, we asked some local vets to share stories of the fallen fellow service members they will be remembering — and saluting — today.

Charles Sanders, U.S. Marine Corps, 1991-98, New York Army National Guard 2008-present, remembers Donald Wagner, pictured

Mr. Sanders still remembers the man who welcomed him into Griswold- Terry-Glover American Legion Post No. 803 in Southold more than two decades ago: Donald Wagner. “He served in the Korean War and spent his whole life very humble,” Mr. Sanders recalled. “He was very old-school, an incredible gentleman … He’s the grandfather you wished you had, a super cool guy.”

Mr. Wagner served in the U.S. Army as a member of the 45th Infantry Division during the Korean War. According to his 2020 obituary in The Suffolk Times, he received a commendation for meritorious service in communications. Following the war, he worked for New York Telephone for three decades and served as a lifelong member and past president of the Telephone Pioneers of America, a nonprofit comprised of hundreds of thousands of telecommunications employees co-founded by Alexander Graham Bell in 1911.

Mr. Sanders described Mr. Wagner as “quiet, humble, gracious [and] a good listener” who volunteered at weekly bingo nights and attended “every event” at the American Legion. It was Mr. Wagner’s consistent presence and dedication to the Legion that inspired Mr. Sanders to not only join and become an active member, but to rise to the rank of commander and bolster its community presence.

“Being around Don, I thought ‘I’ve got to contribute,’” Mr. Sanders said. “He’s part of that generation that thinks about service more than they think about themselves. They’re not just trying to climb the corporate ladder. They wanted to enjoy themselves after the war, but they also really contributed back to the community … He signals to you how you need to behave.”

Perhaps above all, Mr. Sanders remembers Mr. Wagner as a friend. Before he died in 2020 at age 91, Mr. Wagner got to attend Mr. Sanders’ wedding, where he danced with the bride, Alina Sanders.

“He made my wife feel like gold,” Mr. Sanders said. “She came to the North Fork and didn’t know anybody when we got married. He made her feel extremely welcome when we would go to Legion events. My wife became very fond of him. After his wife passed and we came to visit him at Peconic Landing, he said ‘you guys are special guests’ and broke out a bottle of Champagne.”

Tom Najdzion, U.S. Army, 198589, New York Army National Guard 1989-2008 remembers Richard Klekocinski, pictured

Richard Klekocinski passed his love of racing, mechanics and service to the U.S. Army down to his nephew, Tom Najdzion, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2476 in Riverhead.

“He was a mechanic in the service, as well as I was,” Mr. Najdzion said of his uncle, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1969. “We kind of had the same job skills. [We were both] ‘63 Bravos’ which is a light wheeled vehicle mechanic and power generator mechanic … [We repaired] bigger trucks, what we call a ‘deuce-and-ahalf’ [the M35 cargo truck].”

Mr. Klekocinski was stationed in Germany and Vietnam during his two years in the service.

“I know he was driving a deuce-anda- half and he told me he got hit with [a rocket-propelled grenade] and it kind of blew up the truck,” Mr. Najdzion said, recalling a harrowing war story his uncle shared with him. “He was okay, they got out of the truck. The Viet Cong ambushed them on this one convoy and he got hit. That’s part of the military.”

Mr. Klekocinski was born in Speonk but was a fixture at Riverhead Raceway, where he competed in the modified car divisions.

“We would go on Saturdays to Islip [Speedway] and Riverhead Raceway,” Mr. Najdzion recalled. “His thing was trying to get to the big time. Everybody had a dream of going to the races in Daytona with the big guys in NASCAR.”

Mr. Klekocinski’s dream was tragically cut short when he was killed in a motor vehicle accident in 1977 at age 26.

“I kind of fell into his footsteps,” said Mr. Najdzion, who was 10 years old when his uncle died. “I pursued [racing] on my own … I did my four years of active duty [from 1985-89], and when I came home in the ’90s, I used to work for Trux in Riverhead and we had a race car [sponsored] through the business.”

Jack Gibbons, U.S. Navy, 1965-67 remembers George Sullivan, pictured

Mr. Gibbons understands the firsthand how Vietnam veterans were treated received when they returned home.

“It was a difficult time for veterans to come home and experience the reception that we often got,” he said. “I understood that the war wasn’t popular, that didn’t bother me, but it was conflicting being proud of my service to the country and experiencing the turmoil of the anti-war protests. It was not easy … I thought I was unique, but after talking to other veterans, when we came back, it was like we didn’t belong, we didn’t fit in. That didn’t leave me until I met my wife. Falling in love with her and starting a family, that’s what really resolved the issue as well as it can be resolved.”

Mr. Gibbons hopes to rectify this history. Earlier this week, he launched a campaign to officially honor George Sullivan, a longtime Southold Town receiver of taxes who died in 2020 at age 75. Mr. Sullivan was a Marine Corps veteran who lost a leg after being hit by enemy fire during the Vietnam War.

“It’s difficult for me to imagine that someone whose courage is unimpeachable, and whose sacrifices in service to our country and town, equally unimpeachable, has not received some permanent testament to his honor,” reads a portion of the letter Mr. Gibbons mailed to David DeFriest, commander of the Southold American Legion. “We have honored others who have served this town, and rightly so, but to overlook Mr. Sullivan’s contributions and sacrifices is just wrong. I suggest a proper way to honor Mr. Sullivan would be to name some public, town-owned property in his honor, perhaps the Southold Town Beach could be renamed the George M. Sullivan Town Beach, with a suitable plaque noting his contributions to town and country.”

Mr. Sullivan received his commission in the U.S.Marine Corps in June 1966.Six months later, he was assigned to ground forces in the former Republic of Vietnam and assumed command of a rifle platoon stationed with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Dông Hà. On March 17, 1967, he led a mission to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter. Amid a firefight, he was wounded in his shoulder,arm and both legs,injuries that required multiple operations, including the amputation of his left leg. For his leadership and selflessness in battle, he earned both a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross — the country’s second-highest military honor.

“It’s just below the Medal of Honor; it’s a very rare honor to receive that medal,” Mr. Gibbons said. “I’ve often wondered why the town hasn’t recognized his service, both to the country and the town, by naming something after him. He’s one guy I think should really be remembered as a hero.”

Mr. Gibbons, a Mattituck High School history teacher for more than three decades, connected with Mr. Sullivan through his daughter, Megan Collins, a guidance counselor at the high school, but only talked to his colleague’s father on a handful of occasions.

“To be honest, we were pretty much on the opposite sides of the political spectrum,” he said. “We talked back and forth a couple of times about politics and our service to the country. I’ve always respected him. When someone receives the Navy Cross, it grabs your attention if you served in the military. It’s a real high honor, one that is given only to those who have demonstrated incredible courage.”

Bill Sanok, U.S. Army, 1962-64, remembers Leon Jasinski, pictured

Like many volunteers who have served the Riverhead Fire Department during the past six decades, Bill Sanok remembers Leon Jasinski as “all-around gentleman” who served in the Army during World War II.

“In the last couple of years I was able to meet with him over coffee, and I asked him about his service,” said Mr. Sanok, a longtime Riverhead Fire Department volunteer and army veteran who served during the Cold War between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. “He grew up on a farm on the South Fork, so he drove tractors … [Allied Armored Groups] were a couple of days removed from the Battle of the Bulge, and they called on anybody that knew how to drive tractors or other equipment to step up. They drove day and night to get to Belgium. They were going over narrow bridges, just hoping they wouldn’t get caught in accidents cause they were trying to get to the scene of the real fighting.”

Mr. Jasinski’s stories were not limited to his time overseas. Mr. Sanok recalled how the World War II veteran was “quite athletic” and loved playing baseball, including on the Bridgehampton White Eagles with famed local slugger Carl Yastrzemski, who would go on to play for the Boston Red Sox.

Mr. Jasinski volunteered with the Riverhead Fire Department for 64 years. When it came to this community service, Mr. Sanok described his friend as “a real dedicated individual” who showed no shortage of patience when teaching children fire safety. In his later years, Mr. Sanok, who learned to read sheet music and played harmonica and accordion, helped revive the fire department’s marching band.

“He and his daughter [Barbara] were working hard to keep the band going,” Mr. Sanok recalled.