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Military vets feted in New Hyde Park for lives spent in the service of others

James Uvena, a 100-year-old World War II Army

James Uvena, a 100-year-old World War II Army veteran and Huntington resident, holds his Chevalier of the Legion of Honor medal given to him by the French government for his service in helping liberate the country from Nazi occupation. Credit: Howard Simmons

At 100, James Uvena of Huntington recalled Thursday the moment his Army division forged into Europe after the Normandy invasion on D-Day in 1944 under orders of Gen. George S. Patton.

Driving a Sherman tank during the legendary invasion, Uvena said he was among the soldiers who captured some 70,000 Nazi troops and liberated prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp.

And while Uvena has already received honors for his service — including the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French government for helping to liberate the country from the Nazis — he was feted Thursday in New Hyde Park along with other veterans at the Canine Companions for Independence’s seventh annual Veterans Day Ceremony.

“I happen to be one of the lucky ones that came back after four years of serving overseas,” he told a crowd of about 200 assembled inside The Inn at New Hyde Park. “Just be thankful and I just hope all of you feel the same. Be happy that we’re in a great country, the United States of America.”

Uvena joined five other veterans who have served in conflicts ranging from World War II to Operation Enduring Freedom and were recognized Thursday for their continued public service since leaving the armed forces.

They received the Colonel E. David Woycik Jr., Esq. and Staff Sgt. Sam Cila Outstanding Service Awards.

“Veterans, both men and women alike, have sacrificed to preserve our freedom we take for granted,” said Woycik, a Canine Companions board member and a retired military officer. “And all veterans deserve the utmost respect and admiration.”

Uvena was recognized along with fellow Army veterans Pasquale Albarella, David Craven and Gary O’Rourke as well as Air Force veteran Kenneth Hernandez and Navy veteran Edward Martin.

Former Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force chief Brian Noone, now inspector general for the Town of Oyster Bay, was also given the award for serving as many as 30 years in the federal government.

Along with recognizing public servants, Canine Companions for Independence also matches service dogs with veterans, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and may need a companion for everyday tasks. So far, the organization, which is based in California with chapters nationwide, including in Medford, has matched 300 dogs with veterans, Woycik said, adding that the dogs help ease tensions left over from combat duty.

Hernandez, 41, of Westbury, who uses a wheelchair, has relied on 3-year-old Miller, a 70-pound yellow Labrador retriever, to motivate him.

“He gets me going. If he sees me laying on the sofa, he’ll give me a nudge and that tells me to get outside and play some fetch,” said Hernandez, who served as a senior airman and civil engineer in the Air Force from 2003 to 2008 and as a Port Authority police officer from 2008 to 2014 before a vehicular accident forced him into retirement. “He’s another member of the family.”

O'Rourke, who served during the Vietnam War, was both an honoree Thursday and an admirer and supporter of veterans like himself.

The Bay Shore resident served with the Triple Deuce Mechanized Infantry unit in Vietnam and Cambodia from August 1969 to August 1970 and now works for a Long Island-based defense contractor, L3 Harris.

In his spare time, O'Rourke said, he raises money for organizations serving veterans, including the Wounded Warriors Project as well as the Stephen Sillers Tunnel to Towers Foundation, for which he raised $10,000.

“I’m a runner and I do a lot of runs and when I do the runs I do a lot of fundraising also,” he said, adding that he would likely begin raising money for the Canine Companions for Independence as well. “I try to attend every veterans event that I can.”

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