A 97-year-old World War II veteran was honored for his service during a patriotic horse show at Caumsett State Historic Park Preserve in Lloyd Harbor.
To kick off the ceremony, a “Spirit of America” equestrian from the Islip Horseman’s Association Mounted Drill Team hoisted the American flag as six other riders and their horses moved in sync to the song “God Bless the USA.”
After the dressage performance, Huntington Town Supervisor Ed Smyth and event organizer Ana Belo O’Brien, who teaches riding to disabled people, thanked Richard Heinl of Manhasset, who fought on the front lines in Europe, helping to defeat the Nazis.
“He’s America’s greatest generation,” said 75-year-old Army veteran Bruce Fogel, who was stationed in the United States from 1970 to 1976, which included the last years of the Vietnam War. “I don’t know if they have a title for us.”
“We’re the baby boomers,” shouted Ted Corn, 75, of Deer Park, a former Army sergeant who also served during the Vietnam War. They were among a small cohort of servicemen who attended the ceremony, acknowledging they all share a commonality only they could appreciate.
“No matter what branch or time period you were in, we can always communicate what we did because the training is always the same, the jokes are always the same, the drill sergeants are always the same,” Fogel said
Heinl, a father of three and grandfather of six, said he was drafted while he was a premed student at Fordham University and was first asked to be a medic but believed the Germans were not respecting the Geneva Convention and felt he would be a “walking neon” target.
At the time, Allied medics were unarmed and were marked by a Red Cross symbol on their helmets and arm bands, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
“I said thanks, if I work there, I want to be able to duck and fire back so I didn’t go as an aid [medic] man, I went into combat infantry,” said Heinl, noting that all the young men were entering the force.
“I feel lucky to be alive,” added Heinl, who returned to the United States and later graduated from dental school. He practiced dentistry for 15 years before enrolling at Columbia University to become an orthodontist, a profession he enjoyed until 1992, when he retired.
And age isn’t holding him back. The nonagenarian is an avid golfer who enjoys going to the beach and swimming. “I try to stay active and keep moving. Once you stop and sit down you label yourself and then you’re stuck.”
A four-time local fleet champion, Heinl said he would often race his Sunfish sailing boat in Oyster Bay Cove but stopped because of the pandemic.
“There are so few WW II vets being recognized and they’re living history,” added O’Brien. “What a gift to be able to share him with everyone.”