Suffolk County was front and center Thursday during the First Responders Children’s Foundation annual breakfast held before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan.
The organization, founded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, provides scholarships and financial assistance to the children of dead and disabled police officers, firefighters and other first responders.
On Thursday, at its breakfast in the Bryant Park Grill, the group awarded its Public Service Hero Award to Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.
Christine Lettich, a School of Visual Arts sophomore from Port Jefferson Station was awarded the Vincent Bennett Jr. Memorial Scholarship. Her father, Michael Lettich, is a former Suffolk police officer in the department’s Fifth Precinct who was disabled on the job. Lettich’s grandfather, Michael Lettich, was an FDNY firefighter who died in the line of duty in 1992.
Chaplain Nayyar Imam of the Suffolk police led the breakfast’s closing prayer. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini also attended the event.
The families of several Suffolk County first responders who died or were disabled on the job also attended the breakfast before braving frigid temperatures and heading a block away to the parade route.
“First responders put the lives of strangers before their own, and sometimes they make the ultimate sacrifice. You, too, have sacrificed, living a life without one of your parents,” Hart said. “Please know that you will always have your law enforcement family to support you.”
Foundation founder Al Kahn, whose father died on Christmas morning when he was 13 years old, said he was inspired to do something a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks when he realized the children of hundreds of first responders who died that day would spend that Thanksgiving in mourning. “Eighteen years later, here we are,” Kahn said, looking at the hundreds of people packed into the restaurant. “It gets better and sadder every year.”
The sons of two Suffolk officers who died in the line of duty — and later followed their fathers’ career paths by joining the department — joined hundreds of other people who attended the breakfast. Jack Jantzen, a police officer in the Fifth Precinct, said his father John Jantzen was killed while intervening in a domestic abuse situation in 1991. Jantzen was just a month old at the time.
“It’s always especially tough during the holidays,” Jantzen said.
Kevin Wustenhoff, a Fourth Precinct police officer who went to the Bryant Park Grill with his children and wife Jaime, a Second Precinct officer, said his father Dennis Wustenhoff was an undercover narcotics officer who died in a car bombing in 1990. Wustenhoff was 12 years old when it happened.
Wustenhoff said he felt a deep sense of loss at pivotal moments in his life.
“When I learned to drive, when I went to the prom, when I got married, when I had children, when I graduated from the academy, that’s when it has become toughest” he said. “That’s when I think about him. That’s when I want him here.”
Wustenhoff said his family’s loss did not persuade him to pursue another line of work. His son Jackson, 11, said he plans on becoming a cop too.
“Third generation,” Wustenhoff said, beaming proudly at his son.