Bearing baseball caps, T-shirts and a gentle manner, some Long Island first responders are using their firehouse camaraderie to help wounded war veterans in Washington, D.C.
The Vigiano Group -- named for two brothers and first responders from Long Island killed on 9/11 and made up of former firefighters and Marines -- has been visiting soldiers at the Walter Reed Medical Center who have lost arms and legs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In December, the group received the Spirit of Hope Award from the U.S. Department of Defense for their service to others in the face of their own losses on 9/11.
But hope -- not loss -- is the focus of the group's visits to the hospital, where they encounter veterans -- whom they affectionately call "kids" -- sometimes lying in dark and silent rooms.
"We reach out to these kids and start a conversation -- a joke -- something to break the ice," said John Vigiano, 72, a retired FDNY captain from Deer Park who started the group. "Some of the soldiers just lay there in their beds with a parent or a girlfriend, not saying anything. What do you say to them? But we always found the right words."
The connection brings smiles and "a banter that makes the kids laugh, which then has us learning more about them," Vigiano said.
The group's name honors Vigiano's two sons, FDNY firefighter John Vigiano Jr. of West Islip and NYPD Det. Joseph Vigiano of Medford, who both died in the World Trade Center collapse.
But Vigiano said he never shares the loss of his two sons with the veterans.
"I don't want to ruin their day with sympathy," he said.
Vigiano said there's always a supply of volunteers -- including New York City police officers -- to go on the visits, which occur every few months and have been going on for more than a decade. All of them drive down at their own expense, he said.
"It doesn't seem right that people should pay us to say thank you to these men and women," he said.
The group isn't always made up of former first responders -- Vigiano said he also brings his grandsons along on the visits.
"I want them to know what this is about and that it's not about paintball and video games," he said. "This is real."
In 2003, former Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz happened to overhear Vigiano during a hospital visit, Vigiano said.
"I was visiting with a Desert Storm Marine when the secretary overheard our conversation. He said, 'I'd like to see more of those visits. Can you come back?' " said Vigiano, who then started to collect donations of hats and T-shirts from other firefighters as gifts for future visits.
The group's next trip to Walter Reed is planned for the spring.
The firefighters were nominated for the award, named after entertainer Bob Hope, by the Department of Defense Joint Staff.
"They are proud and strong New Yorkers, but very, very humble -- quiet warriors who made their own sacrifices on 9/11, but have turned a tragedy into something incredibly inspiring," U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eries L.G. Mentzer said.
Retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Billy Stone, who helped facilitate visits to the wounded troops, said the group "developed real relationships with the soldiers," noting that they would often spend 12 hours in a day with the troops.
"I would bring in celebrities, congressional members and movie stars like Clint Eastwood," Stone said. "But when the FDNY and NYPD showed up, it was night and day -- because they showed real interest in these kids."