Veterans walks through donated food and clothing at Suffolk Community...

Veterans walks through donated food and clothing at Suffolk Community College's Brentwood campus. (April 23, 2010) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

It's big news when a local soldier dies in combat. Sad news.

Long Island's latest casualty was Jason Santora, 25, a U.S. Army Ranger who grew up in Farmingville. He looked so fit, so handsome on Newsday's front page Monday.

Santora was brave, too. Brave enough to serve six tours combined in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dedicated enough not to leave his comrades for home, even when his grandmother fell ill, according to his family.

By now, Santora's face, his story and his sacrifice are well known. That's not so for local veterans who survive to make their way back home.

On Friday, veterans arrived early for the 2010 Veterans Stand Down at the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood. The event, the fourth in Suffolk County, helped veterans with everything from housing and employment to food and finances. Two veterans were waiting when the first organizers arrived at 7:30 a.m. By the time doors opened at 10 a.m., there was a line outside. Two hours in, more than 150 veterans had been through.

The men and women included baby-faced veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as soldiers from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Inside the academy gym, there was no rank.

Instead, veterans who were brave enough to seek help got help, one by one, with assistance from volunteers - many of them veterans, too - who carried checklists of every service, from haircuts to eyeglasses, available.

Mary McCue, 29, of Syosset, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, picked up materials at one table. "I'm thinking about going back in," she said. "I miss it, and with this economy, it's rough out here trying to get a job."

A few tables later, she bumped into Lillian Denby, 59, of Kings Park, a post Vietnam-era veteran who served in the Army. They'd met once before at the veterans hospital in Northport.

"Find out all the benefits they have," Denby told. "There's opportunities for school, housing. A lot's changed since I was in. There's a lot for women veterans now."

Civilians know almost nothing about a soldier's life. That was clear from snippets of conversation overheard during several trips around the room.

"Were you exposed to Agent Orange?" a woman asked a veteran at one table.

He said yes.

"Radiation?" A soldier answered yes to that one, too.

On the surface, the gym was full of goodwill and good people, volunteers and veterans alike. But lurking beneath is an awful truth.

There are more than 3,000 homeless veterans on Long Island, Suffolk County officials said. And the unemployment rate for veterans, traditionally a high employment group, is an astronomical 15 percent for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, even in Nassau and Suffolk, officials said.

The colorful plastic bags carried by some veterans in the gym contained food and clothing they had picked up from other rooms at the facility. And in the hallway outside, there was a pile of duffel bags with towels and toiletries for veterans who needed showers.

Outside, there were vans, some of which ferried veterans between Brentwood and homeless shelters. According to Thomas Ronayne, director of Suffolk's veterans service agency, veterans, 11 percent of the population, account for 27 to 35 percent of the homeless in New York. "These are proud people who do not easily ask for help," he said.

In Vietnam, stand down was a time for combat soldiers to escape to safer territory. To rest. Get cleaned up. Get good food and new clothes or whatever else they needed. All of which made the stand down in Brentwood, which attracted more than 200 veterans, all the more sobering.

Because veterans, back and safe from war, shouldn't need to stand down, shouldn't need to keep fighting battles when they should be safe at home.

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