From winning the French Legion of Honor to working at a NASA space shuttle emergency landing site in Spain, Long Islanders have had unique experiences serving in the Armed Forces. Eleven veterans gathered at Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center recently to share their stories of bravery and resilience, and how their military service affects their lives to this day.
Bernie Rader, 94, Freeport, U.S. Army, 1943-46
Rader was studying to be an accountant when he was drafted and sent to defend Britain and France from the Nazi assault. During his time as a rifleman with the 94th Infantry Division, his platoon was ambushed; he was injured and taken as a prisoner of war. Rader was brought to a German hospital and thinks he was treated decently because he removed his dog tags -- which indicated that he was Jewish -- and hid them in the dirt before he was taken prisoner. He was released in a prisoner of war exchange and returned to civilian life as an accountant. Besides earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service, French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded Rader the French Legion of Honour -- the equivalent of a French knighthood -- in 2007. The most important thing he learned from his service, he said, was the value of contributing to something greater than oneself.
Bill Ober, 77, Huntington, U.S. Marine Corps, 1961-64
Ober was drafted into the Army but “was looking for a challenge” and decided to enlist in the Marines instead. After returning to civilian life, Ober became a social studies teacher and met his wife, a calculus teacher, during his first day on the job. Ober still lives by what he learned as a Marine: “improvise, adapt and overcome.” He went on to become a National Park Service volunteer in Colorado and Tennessee, a world-class marathoner and the fourth place finisher in the 2002 World Rowing Indoor Championships. He was also named Detachment Marine of the Year in 2009 and New York State Department Marine of the Year in 2013 for his involvement in the Marine Corps League, a national Marine Corps veterans organization. Ober said being a Marine taught him “to finish whatever you start … and to really do the best you can under the circumstances, whatever they are.”
George Gerhauser, 71, U.S. Army 1965-68
Gerhauser was 17 when he enlisted, shortly after graduating high school, with dreams of becoming a Ranger and putting his Boy Scout skills to use. He was told he had to first complete paratrooper training. Though he had never been on a plane before and the training was grueling -- he said he once almost lost his arm after it became tangled in cord while parachuting -- he completed his training and served two tours in Vietnam from 1966-68 where he “made a lot of friends,” including many Vietnamese people. When he returned home he worked on Wall Street as a corporate bond broker and married his late wife, Jill. He now competes in national checkers tournaments and relishes time spent on Facetime with his son and his four grandchildren, who live in Australia. Gerhauser said his service taught him many things, but above all else, he needed to be himself and have faith.
Bruce Gerard Kundle, 69, Islip, U.S. Army, 1968-72
Kundle grew up in Queens Village, the son of a World War II Navy veteran, and knew he wanted to serve his country after many of his friends’ brothers gave their lives in Vietnam. He was a boxer, a gymnast and a black belt in taekwondo, so he was physically fit enough to join the service. Kundle, who served in Vietnam from 1969-70, said his proudest moment in his military career was becoming a member of the U.S. Army’s “Green Beret” Special Forces. He added that the leadership and electronic skills he learned in the service helped him to have a successful career in computer science. “These are experiences some people in civilian life don’t get a chance to even know about,” he said of his time in the military. “I’m very proud to have served.”
Alexander Samuels, 72, U.S. Army, 1969-71
Samuels was “scared to death” when he was drafted because of what he had heard about Vietnam on the news and from friends who had served. He was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he worked inspecting mess halls and doing other preventative health tasks. While in Alaska he received his bachelor’s degree in business administration, which he used when he returned to New York and went back to work at MetLife. The military taught him respect, discipline and how to treat others, he said. “I’m very proud, and more and more people are accepting us vets and treating us the way we should be treated,” he added.
Nelsena Day, 69, Central Islip, Women’s Army Corps, 1971-74
Day, who was one of 17 children, got an associate’s degree in food service administration before joining the service and overseeing two mess halls in Germany. She said she became depressed as a result of mental, physical and sexual abuse that she experienced at the hands of her male counterparts. Day returned to the U.S. after a suicide attempt that she said left her in a coma for a week. Day says she sometimes regrets serving, and was angry for a long time -- but she also thinks her service gave her the strength and perspective to advocate for other female veterans as she does today. “My military service was the beginning of my life,” she said. “It gave me the discipline, it gave me the courage, the perseverance and detail-oriented abilities to fight the fight against sexual abuse and sexual harassment and to continue to be a community activist.”
Amaryllis Olasehinde, 49, East Meadow, U.S. Navy, 1988-2017
During her almost 30 years of service, Olasehinde served as a member of the United States Navy Ceremonial Guard during the George W. Bush administration, held multiple positions at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland (since renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), and served three deployments to Kuwait as a medical planner between 2003-06, and a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012. While serving and raising her two children, military tuition assistance enabled Olasehinde to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in healthcare administration. For that, as well as the friends she made and cultures she was exposed to, the retired lieutenant commander is very grateful. “Although there were some challenging days during my career, there were twice as many great days, and those challenges built a strength in me,” she said.
Melissa R. Pandolf, 44, Patchogue, Air Force/Air National Guard 1993-2015
After graduating from high school, Pandolf says her only goal was to become a stay-at-home mom. But her dad, a former Marine, told her she had to learn to stand on her own two feet. She shocked her family by enlisting in the Air Force, where she served as a flight medic in England. The job let her travel Europe and serve as medical support staff for a NASA space shuttle emergency landing site in Spain. But after leaving the military and becoming a nanny, Pandolf said she struggled with civilian life, specifically not being around other veterans. She decided to join the Air National Guard unit at Westhampton, where she served for 10 years, including a deployment to Ground Zero after 9/11. While serving in the Air National Guard, she got married and adopted four biological siblings from Russia. Now she works for the Suffolk County Veterans Services Agency, advocating for fellow veterans. To Pandolf, who is a retired master sergeant, being a vet means she gets “to stand amongst the elite of the elite, because not everyone can say they’re a vet. I stand taller, I stand prouder and I’m in the company of the most amazing individuals in the world,” she said.
Pamela Schmidlin, 45, Smithtown, U.S. Army, 1996-98
Schmidlin was a “typical suburban Long Island girl” before she enlisted with a desire to make her dad -- a law enforcement officer -- proud. Schmidlin believes military service should be mandatory for every citizen. “I did my time and I can hold my head up and say I accomplished it, whether good or bad came out of it, I did it, and other people can’t say that.” She said her stint in the service gave her the confidence to start a business, Doggone Healthy Choices, that helps people lead a healthy life with their pets.
Sean Fitzthum, 39, West Babylon, U.S. Army, 2000-07
Fitzhum said that as a 21-year-old with no discipline, he needed the Army as much as it needed him. He served as a satellite communications specialist in the Army before he took a job working for General Dynamics, a global aerospace and defense company in Washington D.C. that worked with the Air Force. Fitzthum ultimately quit his job and moved back to his native New York to pursue a degree in graphic design, but fell in love with photography while he was in school. Today, Fitzthum is a photographer and says he learned his loyalty to himself, and his dreams, from his time in the Army. He sees being a veteran like being a part of a brotherhood and said, “When it comes to my service, I am very proud, and I certainly took a lot from it.”
Joanne Guerra, 30, Islandia, U.S. Army, 2005-13
Guerra described her service in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2012 as a human intelligence collector as physically demanding and said while being shot at she questioned if she was going to die -- though she “didn’t have time to be scared.” On top of the danger she had to deal with, Guerra, a lesbian, had to conceal her sexuality under the military’s former “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Now Guerra is a security guard working toward earning her master’s degree in sustainability with the emotional support of her Corgi, Lola, who she says “brought me out of a lot of dark places” and “reminded me that there is beauty and pureness in the world.” Though she was empathetic before, Guerra said her service made her more understanding of different cultures. “I would have grown regardless, [but] my growth potential has expanded. [My thinking is] less local to Queens, and it’s more worldly.”