Mom who helps disabled vets has new mission with son
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As president of the local Blue Star Mothers of America, Cynthia Ventura has been there for fellow military moms and dads. She's held the hands of grieving parents, organized aid for Marine Corps amputees, and has even attended burials for soldiers long forgotten.
She was at it again last week, organizing a fundraiser for Sunday for a charity that presents custom-built bicycles for troops whose injuries have cost them the use of their legs.
But now, for the second time in two years, the Holtsville activist is the one with red-rimmed eyes. Soon, it could be her own offspring riding one of the bikes.
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Doctors say her 22-year-old son, a strapping Marine Corps reservist who had just returned from military training at upstate Fort Drum, probably will never walk again after a hit-and-run July 3 in Selden.
"I never thought one day my own son would need one," Ventura, whose Blue Star Mothers is a support network composed of families whose children face military deployment, said of the bikes. "But he's a strong kid. If anyone is going to walk after something like this, he is."
Lance Cpl. Billy Ventura was paralyzed from the waist down in the hit-and-run on Middle Country Road. Doctors at Stony Brook University Hospital are treating him for fractured vertebrae, a crushed spinal cord, a collapsed lung and lacerated internal organs.
Attached to the Garden City based 2/25th Marine Corps Reserve, Billy Ventura had tumbled into the roadway when the 2007 Suzuki motorcycle he borrowed from his father clipped a car that had stopped in front of him. A passing motorist then ran over the motorcycle as it lay atop Ventura.
Witnesses said the driver, described as a woman of about 50, stopped, got out of her car, glanced at the injured man, got back in her car and fled.
Billy Ventura's mom was in a rare position to do more than just hope for his recovery.
She had formed her Angel Bikes charity after the eldest of her three sons, Cpl. Jerome Ventura, died two years ago from a reaction to medication while being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at Marine Air Station Miramar, in San Diego.
Last year, the charity donated its first bicycle, to Marine Capt. James Byler of Huntington, who lost both legs above the knee when he stepped on a mine in Afghanistan. The bike was given in the name of Jerome Ventura.
At Sunday's fundraiser, the charity's second bike donation will be go to Cpl. Kevin Vaughan, of North Merrick. His lower left leg was amputated after a 2011 roadside bombing in Afghanistan.
Combat-related amputations have been a grim hallmark of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of last December, 1,715 military personnel serving there had lost all or part of at least one limb since President George W. Bush first sent combat troops to the region in 2001.
Organizers said they hope that Billy Ventura's injuries will encourage more people to help military personnel cope with traumatic setbacks.
"Unfortunately we have an abundance of wounded warriors who are requesting bikes," said Lisa Ryan of Hicksville, a Blue Star Mother who helped organize the fundraiser. "On Long Island alone, I'm aware of 20 waiting."
Organizers were expecting more than 100 participants to attend the $20-per-entry fundraiser, which kicks off at 2 p.m. at Mulcahy's Pub and Concert Hall, in Wantagh. Raffle prizes include golf clubs, restaurant gift certificates and six hours of service donated by a local limousine company. Ryan said the New York Islanders donated a hat signed by the team's players.
Billy Ventura will not get a bike Sunday. But he said all the support, through social media, family vigils and visits from friends and fellow Marines, have buoyed his spirits. A doctor with a son serving in Afghanistan told him Marines there had learned of his plight, and had asked the doctor to tell him they had his back.
"When they realized doctors only give me a 1 percent chance to walk again, they realized how crushed I was," Ventura said from his hospital bed. "But within a few hours, there were hundreds of people on Facebook sending me messages, saying don't give up hope."