The East Meadow American Legion commander, Pete Wenninger, was one of five veterans honored with the 2021 Distinguished Service to Veterans Award last Sunday at the 35th annual Salute to Veterans at Eisenhower Park’s Harry Chapin Lakeside Theatre. Hundreds attended to honor Nassau County’s veterans.
“There are five individuals today who have answered the call to assist our local veterans,” said Ralph Esposito, director of the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency. “These are individuals in the community who have shown exceptional volunteerism to our local veterans. They have shown what it means to be a leader in their community.”
Before introductions were made and awards given out, the colors were presented by Paul Masi, the sergeant of the guard, followed by an invocation and a POW-MIA prayer offered by John Baptiste Fiore, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Port Washington. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by Chris Peterkin, the VFW county commander, and the national anthem was sung by Norman Jardine.
“These local heroes make a difference every day,” Esposito said. Then he spoke about the work done by the honorees during the coronavirus pandemic, and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran shared her appreciation for the veterans, too.
Wenninger “is making a positive impact in our community every day,” Curran said. “I’m so grateful for your wonderful service. This is a guy I see at almost every event.” Wenninger also spearheaded a group that is committed to making certain that every veteran receives a proper burial escort with military honors, Curran noted.
Wenninger, 61, has been a member of the Patriot Guard Riders since 2009. The PGR is a national nonprofit whose members attend the funerals and memorials for members of the U.S. military and first responders.
It was Wenninger who encouraged Wayne Cohen, an East Meadow American Legion member, to get involved in the PGR. Cohen is now a senior ride captain for Region 8. “I can’t say enough about Pete,” Cohen said. “He’s someone that when he stands up to do things, people want to follow him.”
Wenninger, a lifelong East Meadow resident, served in the Navy for six years after graduating from East Meadow High School in the 70's. He has been volunteering and helping veterans for years at local fire departments and in the Nassau County Fire Riders and has fundraised for veterans. Additionally, he has helped with “The Wall that Heals,” a moving replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Wenninger became commander of American Legion Post 1082 in East Meadow last year. He said he has spent 968 hours volunteering for the organization. Under his leadership, the hall has been renovated, with new siding, air conditioning, grass and a patio.
“I can’t tell how much work, blood, sweat and tears he has poured into that facility,” Cohen said. “The place is no longer an eyesore. It’s a place people want to come to gather.”
Wenninger has made the hall a place where veterans feel appreciated and welcome, Cohen said, adding, “He’s probably one of the most passionate people I know.”
The crowd listened intently when Wenninger shared how important it is to honor and help the country’s veterans. “I feel very blessed today, especially because of our military, especially because of our recent veterans,” Wenninger said. “...You may not like this war, you may not like that war, but I hold one thing very true in my heart: If there wasn’t a veteran, there wouldn’t be a country.”
Then he shared two words that he said veterans should hear. “Welcome home,” he told the audience. “That’s so very important to say.”
Wenninger also asked people to tell their elected leaders that Covid-19 relief money needs to be distributed to veteran halls. “A country that forgets its defenders has soon forgotten itself,” he said.
When the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency notified him of the award, Wenninger told officials he was honored to be considered.
“It’s important to acknowledge each and every person who makes a difference in someone’s life,” he said. “More importantly, it’s important to recognize someone when they’re standing alone.”
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