For Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews, the experience was gut-wrenching. Wiping away tears, he joined veterans and their families at “The Wall That Heals,” a 375-foot-long, three-quarter-scale mobile replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial outside the Glen Cove Fire Department on Tuesday. Stevenson-Mathews said he expected to be moved, but was surprised by the depth of his emotions.
He had worked with another Glen Cove resident, Virginia Cervasio, to bring the wall to Glen Cove to be put on display. Cervasio is the founder of Heroes Among Us, an organization that helps veterans returning from services find the resources that can help them and their families. The wall was scheduled to move to Eisenhower Park for three days starting Thursday. Then it will be transported to Plymouth, Pa., one of many future stops as it continues its annual tour across the country, as it’s been doing so since 1996.
Stevenson-Mathews said that while he was lucky not to have lost an uncle in Vietnam, many others were not so fortunate. Family members and friends died in Southeast Asia, and they were never able to say goodbye. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., offers closure to many, but many more have never visited it.
“Some people can’t make it out to Washington to the real thing, so this removes that barrier and brings it to them,” Stevenson-Mathews said. “They can rub it, salute it or just come and see it. It’s here for them.”
Tony Jimenez, the director of Glen Cove Veterans Affairs, who served as the MC at the event in Glen Cove, said he was also moved by the mobile monument, which, like the original one, displays the names of fellow soldiers he met in Vietnam. Jimenez said he was honored to lead the ceremony in Glen Cove and happy that his community could serve as the launching pad for the wall as it heads to Eisenhower Park.
“It’s such an honor to be able to host the wall,” said Cervasio, 61, of Glen Cove. “We’re committed to giving the public something they’ll remember for life.”
Cervasio’s activism began long before she launched Heroes Among Us in 2014. Her son, Angelo, joined the Air Force after he graduated from Locust Valley High School in 2000, and served as an Airman 1st Class in Operation Southern Watch in Iraq for three years before being stationed in Oklahoma City for the remainder of his service. When he returned home, Angelo “didn’t want to talk about anything,” his mother recalled. “His whole character was different.”
In 2006, six months after his discharge, Angelo died by suicide. He was 24. “You’re never going to know why something like this happens,” his mother said. “But, personally, I wanted to make something good come of it. I wanted to continue his legacy.”
A native of Glen Cove, Cervasio lived in Lee County, Fla., from 2004 to 2014, and after her son died, she founded a nonprofit in Florida called Cares Suicide Prevention, sharing Angelo’s story and hosting educational seminars on the signs she said she missed that led him to take his own life.
When she returned to Glen Cove in 2014, Cervasio continued her advocacy, volunteering for the Long Island Crisis Center, where she has overseen the organization’s suicide support group for three months. She earned a degree in sociology from SUNY Old Westbury and founded Heroes Among Us, initially meeting with veterans at her home, but finding office space on Old Country Road, between Westbury and Salisbury, four months ago.
“So many vets have trouble finding their footing, and there are so many resources available to them that they might not know about,” said Gary Glick, of North Merrick, the commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 652. Cervasio “has been doing so much to help them out.”
Heroes Among Us has helped veterans pay their bills, helped them find therapists and organized school supplies drives for their families, among other services. “One vet came to us looking for a guide dog,” Cervasio recalled. “We got him one from a breeder just by word of mouth.”
Each May the organization hosts a gala to raise funds, to honor veterans who have died and to recognize those who have contributed to their communities. It applied to host the traveling Vietnam memorial last fall, and had prepared for its arrival since it was notified of its acceptance by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in November.
The wall was scheduled to leave the Fire Department on Tuesday and be escorted roughly 12 miles south on Glen Cove Road with a parade to Eisenhower Park, where it will be on display from Thursday at 10 a.m. until Sunday at 3 p.m.
Tim Tetz, director of outreach for the memorial fund, said he was especially moved by the local veterans who escorted the wall replica in and out of Glen Cove. “These vets on the wall did not have their homecoming,” Tetz said, “and this is the homecoming parade they deserve.”