Shortly before 10 a.m. on Friday, Harvey Gultz and Jesse Fuentes didn’t know one another, although they had some similarities.
Both live in Rockland, Gultz in Chestnut Ridge and Fuentes in Spring Valley, both served in the Vietnam War and both were about to attend State Sen. David Carlucci’s first Veterans Appreciation Breakfast at the Nyack Seaport.
Gultz walked in Friday morning wearing a hat that read “25 Infantry Division,” Fuentes saw it, walked over to Gultz and said he thinks they served in the same division of the military.
The two talked a bit and learned they both went to Vietnam in 1966-1967, traveling over on the USS Walker, which they both remembered making a stop in Okinawa, Japan. They were both stationed in Dau Tieng and talked about the Michelin Rubber Factory nearby.
“It turns out we were in pretty much all the same places during the way for the same amount of time,” Gultz said.
The difference, and perhaps reason neither felt like they had met before, was because Gultz was a medic and Fuentes was served in the infantry.
Carlucci said part of the reason he wanted to hold a veterans breakfast was to bring together veterans, perhaps not necessarily veterans who unknowingly served together, but veterans who served at different points.
“We have such a diverse group of veterans right here in this room, which really shows what’s going on this community,” Carlucci told the group of 40-plus veterans on Friday. “We’ve got a new generation of veterans coming home from Iraq, from Afghanistan, that are facing new challenges. We have our greatest generation, that’s here today, that served in World War II and Korea. We have Vietnam veterans, we have Desert Storm veterans, and we need to meet the challenges of the day. We have veterans that are living longer and better quality of lives, but we’ve got to make sure that we need those needs.”
Carlucci made mention of needing to make sure veterans have access to housing and jobs, and that he’s working on those issues in the state senate and locally with his Veterans Advisory Committee.
“Right here in New York State, we have an unemployment rate for our veterans which is double the average of their civilian counterparts,” Carlucci said. “That’s an absolute disgrace, and that’s something that in our Veterans Advisory Committee we’ve made it a goal to say that we can turn that around and we believe that through the smart policies that in New York, we can be leaders.”
Carlucci added he’s working on a policy called Hire A Vet which would give incentives to employers for hiring an unemployed veteran.
But the breakfast wasn’t just about honoring veterans. It was also about keeping their legacy alive through younger generations. Carlucci held an essay contest for middle schoolers in Rockland where they were to do some research on Camp Shanks and write about the base.
The winner was Larson Larame, 11, of Spring Valley. The Kakiat Elementary School sixth-grader said he worked on his essay on a recent weekend, starting on a Thursday and working until Sunday. Larame said one of the most interesting things he learned about Camp Shanks was that it was the final stop for about 1.3 million soldiers before they traveled overseas.
“I was surprised,” Larame said of learning he was the winner. “I didn’t see that coming.”
Also on hand where Larame’s parents and twin brother, along with his teacher Roger Bressack and principal Jennifer Wilmoth, who urged her sixth graders to participate in the contest.
“We thought it was a great opportunity for the students to honor the veterans and make history come alive,” Wilmoth said. “It was a way to make a local connection and it was timely.”
It was timely because Carlucci opted to hold the event the 71st anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and also because Larame’s class just met a World War II veteran. Bressack’s father, Alfred Bressack, served in the Army in World War II, and Bressack said every year he has his father come in and talk to his students. Alfred Bressack was also at the breakfast.
“[Larson] brings honor to everybody here, including my father,” Roger Bressack said. “We’re trying to teach kids who to properly read, write and research, and this was an independent research project. I helped them a little in class, told them one site where they could look up information, but they mostly all worked on their own out of the classroom.”