Martin C. Evans

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

War’s Tiny Victims Seek Refuge Among Us

In Uncategorized on July 31, 2011 at 11:26 pm

Based on an article I wrote in today’s Newsday

By Martin C. Evans – THE MISSILE, fired by troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, exploded in her bedroom in besieged Misrata May 13, severing one of her legs and killing her two siblings .

On Thursday, 5-year-old Malak Elshami arrived at a Long Island guesthouse with her father. In the house with her were a half-dozen other children who had been wounded in war zones around the world, including Zeenabdeen Hadi, a 4-year-old Iraqi who moved into the house with his uncle last spring to await plastic surgery on his face scarred in a bombing.

Zeenabdeen Hadi, 4, was gravely injured in a car bombing in Iraq. He is on Long Island getting reconstructive plastic surgery from a team led by Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh. (Photo- CBS News)

Like the others in the house, Malak was on Long Island for medical care and for the hope of a better life. The Ronald McDonald House on 76th Avenue in New Hyde Park has been transformed into a safe house, far from the fighting.

She quickly fit in with the other children. Zeenabdeen, who has jagged scars that crisscross his face, amused her with a hand puppet shaped like a pig. A young Iraqi, who like Malak lost a leg and a pair of siblings in a bombing, elicited peals of laughter from the girl by batting a trio of helium balloons at her. A third Iraqi child, who was burned from the waist down when a bomb ignited a car he was in, killing his grandfather, offered to show her how to play a video game.

“She understands this will be a long process, but she’s glad to be here,” said the girl’s father, Mustafa Elshami, who accompanied her to Long Island. “I’m happy I’m in America, and my daughter will get treated.”

The Ronald McDonald House will be their home for months as they receive medical attention, from plastic surgery to new limbs. In their war-torn lives, the house in the leafy suburbs is unlike anything they have ever known.

Their Good Samaritan

The children have been brought to the United States by a Staten Island woman who has made medical rescue work a personal mission.

Elissa Montanti has brought some 150 seriously injured child victims of war or natural disasters to the United States for rehabilitative treatments since opening a one-person charitable organization out of her home in 1997. She declined to specify how much money had been donated, but said the group has collected about $1 million since being featured on “60 Minutes” in March.

Working through a network of doctors and hospitals here and in Philadelphia, Montanti has arranged treatments that typically involve both prosthetic limbs and plastic surgery. She also handles arrangements that allow children and caretakers to make the trip, arranging visas, soliciting money for airline tickets, finding housing and setting up transportation to treatment facilities.

“She’s like a mother and a sister to us,” said Mustafa Elshami, who contacted Montanti after learning of her Global Medical Relief charity from a doctor in Libya.

The stories told by the children Montanti has brought here help to illustrate the effect of war-related violence.

In Iraq alone, nearly 1,000 children were killed in attacks between 2008 and 2010, according to a United Nations report.

Two of the children who greeted Malak as she arrived had themselves suffered horrific wounds within a mile of each other in 2008. Sajjad Hadi, 7, lost two of his brothers and had a leg amputated in a Sept. 12, 2008, bombing that killed more than 30 people. The other boy, Zeenabdeen, was nearly killed in a Dujail car bombing six months earlier.

Coping with loss

Montanti says she began trying to help children harmed overseas in the mid-1990s as a way of coping with her grief over the deaths of her mother and grandparents. Friends suggested that she might restore meaning to her life by organizing help for children affected by the just-ended war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

‘We could use a lot more’

In 1996, Montanti got in touch with the Bosnian UN ambassador with an offer to raise money for school supplies. He replied by reading to her a letter from a teenage boy who had both arms and a leg blown off by a land mine. “He said, ‘We could use a lot more than just pencils and notebooks,'” Montanti recalled.

The child, Kenan Malkic, had been playing soccer near his home when he tripped a mine. “I was really busted up and in a lot of pain,” said Malkic, who is now 28 and works with Montanti. “And when she called the house, I couldn’t help thinking, there’s no way. It’s not like she was some organization like the Red Cross.”

Montanti began trying to find a way to get prosthetic limbs for Malkic. She called doctors and hospitals, asking if any would help for free. She appealed to airlines for transportation. Six weeks later, Malkic was living in her Staten Island home while being treated at Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

She held a fundraising concert attended by Dr. Tom Davenport, a partner with the Long Island Plastic Surgical Group. Moved by Montanti’s appeal, Davenport persuaded members of his practice to take on her work. A nonprofit formed by his practice – Mission: Restore – helps find medical specialists and hospitals to donate time and resources to treat children brought here by Montanti.

“What she does allows us to do the charity work we do,” said Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh of Long Island Plastic Surgical Group, who has provided pro-bono services to several children Montanti brought here.

Montanti said she once had wanted to join the Peace Corps so she could help children abroad. “Now, I have children all over the world,” she said. “This works for me.”

Vietnam Vets Troubled By Early Deaths

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2011 at 5:15 pm

From Newsday, Dec. 16, 2010
http://www.newsday.com/long-island/eyeing-death-rates-of-vietnam-war-veterans-1.2537384

By MARTIN C. EVANS
martin.evans@newsday.com

WHEN Diane Lake began visiting her late husband’s resting place at
Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, she became alarmed by
what she saw nearby: memorial markers that showed many of her
husband’s fellow Vietnam veterans had died even younger than he had.

The markers, spaced along a wall where the ashes of her husband, Spc.
4th Class Robert Lake, and others are interred, indicate which war a
veteran served in, along with rank and branch of service.

Diane Lake is concerned that Vietnam vets are facing early deaths. Her husband, Robert Lake, 65, died last year of skin cancer.

“I would look up on the wall and see this one was only 62 and this
one was only 61, and say to myself these men were pretty young to be
dying already,” said Lake, whose husband was 65 when he died of an
aggressive skin cancer May 13.

Lake, of East Northport, is among an increasingly vocal number of
Vietnam veterans or their loved ones who are questioning whether
participation in the Vietnam War is hastening the deaths of soldiers
who survived it.

John Rowan, of Queens, national president of Vietnam Veterans of
America, said his organization had been frustrated that the
Department of Veterans Affairs has not done current research on the
death rates of Vietnam vets. But he said he sees change coming. In
September, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his department has begun a
study of the health impacts of the war, which he said would be
complete in about three years.

“The insight we gain from this study will help give us an
understanding of how to better serve America’s veterans,” Shinseki
said in a news release.

Death rate concerns veterans

The VA study could go far in addressing concerns of Vietnam veterans
groups who believe the war has had a devastating effect on their
health and life expectancy. Their evidence is mostly anecdotal,
though. Some experts familiar with limited data regarding veterans’
deaths say they have seen nothing that supports the charge that
Vietnam vets are dying at unusually high rates. Still, many Vietnam
veterans believe it is true.

“The Vietnam guys are going faster than the World War II guys,” said
Joe Ingino, president of the Nassau County chapter of Vietnam
Veterans of America. He said he has come to believe this from stories
he has been told across the region.

Examples on Long Island include a Medal of Honor awardee, Army Spc.
George C. Lang, who grew up in Hicksville. Lang, who was paralyzed
during a 1969 firefight, was 57 when he died of cancer five years ago.

Sharing a section of the memorial wall, known as a columbarium, in
Farmingdale are the names of Staff Sgt. Leslie Garcia, formerly of
Central Islip, who was 58 when he died of a heart attack this year,
and PV2 Angel Gonzalez, of Manhattan, who was 53 when he died in
2009. The marker for another soldier nearby – Pfc Lawrence Gilmore
was 61 when he died of a heart attack last year – reads “No more pain
beloved son and brother.”

“He was in a lot of pain,” said his mother, Eva Gilmore, of
Port Richey, Fla., who said Gilmore battled diabetes before he died.

Many veterans note with alarm that the VA this year again expanded
the list of more than a dozen diseases – including a host of cancers,
Type 2 diabetes, and ischemic heart disease – directly linked to
exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed in Vietnam
between 1962 and 1971. A diagnosis on the list can entitle a veteran
to compensation related to a service-connected disability.

Other factors at play

Advocates say factors other than service in Vietnam also likely
undermined the health of veterans. Because returning troops were
rejected by a war-weary public, many turned inward, battling anxiety,
depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome on their own, often
made worse by alcohol or drugs, experts say. And for most of the war,
troop rations included free cigarettes.

“I can’t say if his heart attack had anything to do with him being in
the war because he was a heavy smoker,” said Jocelyn McIntee, of
Greenlawn, whose husband, Eugene, served in Vietnam in the mid-1960s,
and died in 1992 when he was 49. “He really didn’t talk about it, but
do I think he came back with a lot of stress, yes. He saw a lot of
people killed, and that must have been disturbing.”

As early as 1987, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
reported that troops who had been in Vietnam were dying faster
because of risky or violent behaviors after their return.

In its 1987 Vietnam Experience Study, the CDC reported that the death
rate for U.S. troops who served in Vietnam was 1.5 times higher than
for troops who served elsewhere in the first five years after their discharge.

Violent deaths accounted for much of the increase in that study, with
Vietnam veterans twice as likely to die from car crashes, suicide and
homicide as were troops who served elsewhere during that era.

A 1996 study by Australia’s Department of Veterans Affairs showed
that Australian troops who served in Vietnam died younger than
Australian troops who served elsewhere in the same period. They were
twice as likely to die of lung cancer and three times as likely to
die of cirrhosis of the liver, the study showed.

More recent data on the rate of Vietnam veteran deaths is anything
but clear, says Mary Paxton, of the national Institute of Medicine, a
sister organization of the National Academy of Sciences that
evaluates health data for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Paxton said studies of U.S. veterans cannot be regarded as definitive
because incomplete record-keeping by the U.S. military means
researchers cannot reliably track the health outcomes of the 2.6
million Americans who served in Vietnam.

No ‘massive die-off’

But her reading of research has convinced her that there is no
epidemic of early deaths among Vietnam vets.

“I get calls from veterans who say they are dropping like flies, but
that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Paxton said. “I think they are at
somewhat higher risk, but there is not the massive die-off that is
being claimed.”

Paxton referenced a 2004 update of the 1987 CDC study, which followed
18,313 male Army veterans.

“Death rates from disease-related chronic conditions, including
cancers and circulatory system diseases, did not differ between
Vietnam veterans and their peers,” the report said.

To families of many Vietnam veterans, the statistics only go so far,
as many now wonder whether their service in Vietnam so long ago is
threatening their lives a second time.

That’s a question that tugs at Diane Lake, who said it became clear
her husband knew he would not live past 65.

“He said, ‘Diane, I don’t have much time,’ ” she said, recalling his
words shortly before his death. “He was with us another 10 days, and
he was gone.”

Study Links PTSD to Heart Disease

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm


Veterans with post traumatic stress disorder are more likely to develop heart disease than those without ptsd, a federal study shows.

The study conducted by researchers at the Greater Los Angeles Health System of the Department of Veterans Affairs, showed that veterans with ptsd developed higher levels of coronary artery calcium, or hardening of the arteries, than veterans with no history of ptsd.

Calcification is associated with arterial plaques, fatty blockages that can restrict the flow of blood to heart muscles, and bring on atherosclerotic heart attacks.

The study, published in April by the American Journal of Cardiology, could raise new concerns that the psychological toll exacted from soldiers has debilitating physical consequences. Some veterans advocates have suggested that Vietnam veterans are dying at a faster rate than their counterparts who were never sent to war.

The authors reviewed electronic medical records of 286,194 veterans, most of them male with an average age 63, who had been seen at Veterans Administration medical centers in southern California and Nevada. Some of the veterans had last been on active duty as far back as the Korean War.

Researchers also had access to coronary artery calcium CT scan images for 637 of the patients, which showed that those with PTSD had more calcium built up in their arteries — a risk factor for heart disease — and more cases of atherosclerosis.

The study showed that veterans diagnosed with PTSD had 2.41 times the rate of death from all causes, compared to veterans without PTSD, after adjusting for age, gender, and common risks for heart disease.

Even though PTSD was diagnosed in only 10.6 percent of all the veterans studied, nearly 30 percent of those who died had PTSD, the results showed.

The research, said to be the first of its kind to draw a direct link between ptsd and atherosclerotic heart disease, was conducted by researchers Dr. Naser Ahmadi and Dr. Ramin Ebrahimi. They said they hope their findings will lead to a greater appreciation of how psychological trauma can have physical consequences.

“The goal would be for PTSD to become part of routine screening [for heart disease risk factors],” Ebrahimi told HealthDay news service.

Although PTSD is commonly associated with war veterans, it’s now also widely linked to people who have survived traumatic events, such as rape, a severe accident or an earthquake, flood or other natural disaster.

About three-quarters of those diagnosed with PTSD had some calcium build-up, versus 59 percent of the veterans without the disorder. As a group, the veterans with PTSD had more severe disease of their arteries, with an average coronary artery calcification score of 448, compared to a score of 332 in the veterans without PTSD — a significantly higher reading.

But scientists are not ready to say with certainty that ptsd causes heart disease. They say behavior choices, such as smoking or heavy drinking, could be responsible for the higher rates of coronary disease among ptsd victims. Stress hormones could also be a factor, as could genetic traits that may influence a person’s risk for both PTSD and heart disease.

VA Hopes Child Care Will Address Female Vets

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2011 at 6:08 pm

The military has 73,000 single parents. Child care is an issue for returning veterans, including increasing numbers of women.

The Veterans Administration will take a step this fall toward filling a need expressed by female vets when it begins offering child care for outpatient visitors at its medical care facility in Northport.

Northport was one of three medical centers chosen by Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki for a pilot program offering free child care while veterans are being treated. Pilot programs will also open in Buffalo, N.Y. and Tacoma, Washington.

Women’s advocates had been especially vocal about adding day care, saying its absence has made VA facilities seem particularly unwelcome to female veterans.

Giustina Penna, 32, an Iraq War veteran from Bay Shore, said she stopped attending psychotherapy sessions at Northport about two years ago in part because she had difficulty arranging for care for an infant son.

“There are a lot of people who can’t take care of themselves because they can’t find anyone to take care of their kids,” said Penna. “And it’s hard to take care of your family when you can’t take care of yourself.”

“I’m very pleased to hear that it is going to go through,” Penna said.

Although Northport has operated a child care center since 1986, the 40-place facility is for the children of its employees.

Penna said she sought psychotherapy treatment at Northport after a 2005 deployment as a truck driver in Iraq left her battling depression and substance abuse. She said she was haunted by having witnessed the death of a child, and that the smell of rotting corpses there had been a frequent reminder of the danger that surrounded her.

“For the next year, I was on a suicide mission,” Penna said.

She said for many parents, the availability of day care will spell the difference between getting regular treatment and doing without.

Central Islip native Sgt. Tito Collazo, who gets treatment for back and shoulder injuries at Northport, said he also plans to make use of the planned day care center.

He said being able to bring his daughter Kaitlyn, 3, will mean he will spend less time worrying about making child-care arrangements, and focus more on his treatments.

“It will relieve so much pressure of finding someone I’m comfortable leaving my daughter with,” said Collazo, 32. “I do have more of a sense of trust with the VA and military organizations.”

With some 73,000 single parents currently serving in the active duty military, child care is expected to be an increasingly urgent need for new veterans seeking health services.

But women remain significantly less likely than men to use VA health facilities, even as the percentage of women in the military continues to grow, according to Patricia Hayes, Chief Consultant of the VA’s Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group.

Many female veterans say VA facilities remain uninviting to women, and remind them of a male-oriented military culture that left large numbers of them scarred by sexual abuse or other emotional traumas.

In addition to child care, women’s advocates have called for extended clinic hours to accommodate single mothers, separate entrances and waiting areas, escorts to help female veterans feel safe, more female-only ptsd counseling programs, and greater resources to address women who were the victims of sexual assault while in the military.

“A coed environment can truly be the worst thing for a woman suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and PTSD,” Tia Christopher, of the Swords to Plowshares veterans advocacy group, told a Senate hearing in 2009.

In recent years, VA has developed women’s primary care programs at their health care facilities across the nation, and has hired program managers and coordinators to manage care for women veterans

“We hope that by offering safe, secure child care while the Veteran attends a doctor’s appointment or therapy session, we will enable more women Veterans to take advantage of the VA benefits to which they are entitled,” Hayes said in a release.

William Wheeler, Tuskegee Airman, Dies

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2011 at 12:22 pm

[Update: Funeral arrangements, set for July 29, may be found here]

When William M. Wheeler was a sophomore at Howard University in 1943, he swallowed his racial hurt, boarded a segregated train in Washington, D.C. and headed south.

Ahead of him awaited a groundbreaking aviation program that would eventually train the 994 black pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Wheeler, 87, who died of heart failure early Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. would become one of them.

William Wheeler, at the 2010 funeral of fellow Tuskegee flier Spann Watson

“I hated the country at the time, and wasn’t sure I wanted to fight for it,” Wheeler, a 47-year Hempstead N.Y. resident, said in 2010. “But I realized that despite our nation’s injustices, even slaves had fought for this country and that black people had fought in every U.S. war since. I felt I couldn’t let that tradition down.”

As word of his death spread Tuesday, Wheeler was praised for his work to preserve the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were mostly forgotten by history until about 20 years ago. In the last years of his life, Wheeler frequently participated in oral history projects, traveling to schools, air shows and aviation museums across the country to tell the story of the black fliers.

“He understood the role of living history, and as a result, his inexhaustible energy saw him in classrooms, assemblies and constantly at Airpower,” said Gary Lewi, a spokesman for the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, where Williams frequently participated in historic programs.

He was born in Detroit on Aug. 20, 1923, the second of four children of Ada and Leon “Toy” Wheeler. His father, who is credited as Detroit’s first black recreation employee, ran the Brewster Recreation Center – later renamed Brewster Wheeler in Leon Wheeler’s honor. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson learned boxing there during his tenure.

His father’s job shielded the family from economic hardship, but not from the racial animosity directed at the city’s growing population of black southern migrants. Wheeler said the murder of a friend by a white mob helped persuade him to leave Detroit and attend Howard University.

While Wheeler was at Howard, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to end the military’s refusal to train black pilots. With the eyes of the world watching in 1941, the Army began an all-black flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama.

Wheeler took an aptitude test, scored well, and in 1943 went to Washington’s Union Station to catch a train south.

He was surprised to find that the coaches were segregated, and blacks were restricted to seats behind the train’s sooty engine and coal car. “I tell people that when I left Washington I was brown, but by the time I got to Keesler Field, I was black, as were all of my possessions,” Wheeler told Newsday in July, 2010.

After he was commissioned as a second lieutenant on March 12, 1944 – with Tuskegee’s 44C cadet class – he was assigned to Walterboro Army Airfield, in South Carolina. He received additional aerial training there from Tuskegee graduates who had already flown in combat, including Spann Watson. Watson, a longtime Westbury resident, died last year.

Black pilots who flew to liberate Europe during WWII were forced to train and fly in segregated units. (photo: Library of Congress)


He was assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, in Ramitelli, Italy, and flew strafing and bomber escort missions over Europe. But his combat career was cut short on his his sixth mission when a respiratory ailment caused him to black out at 36,000 feet. His P-51 dove more than five miles before he regained consciousness.

After his honorable discharge in 1945, he met Minnie Jenkens, an 18-year-old high school student, on a Harlem street corner. Two months later, they were married.

“I was engaged to someone in Detroit at the time, but when I met Minnie, I knew that was over,” said Wheeler, whose marriage endured until her death in a 2004 pedestrian accident. “She was the love of my life.”

After the war, the rapidly-expanding commercial airline industry began snapping up military pilots, who were among the best-trained, most cool-headed fliers in the world. But none of the Tuskegee aviators were hired. (Airlines did not begin hiring blacks until 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled that Continental Airlines’ refusal to hire Air Force veteran Marlon D. Green, a black pilot with nine years of experience, was discriminatory. Last year, Continental named its newest Boeing 737 in honor of Green, who died in 2009.)

Undaunted by the airlines’ rejections, Wheeler completed night classes at the New School for Social Research, started a family that would include three children, and worked in both the publishing and aircraft industries. He retired in 1990 as an administrator with National Westminster Bank.

Survivors include three children: Scott Wheeler, of Emeryville, Ca., Derek Wheeler, of Riverdale, and Cameron Wheeler, of Yonkers.

Asked in July, 2010 how he would like to be remembered, Wheeler said he was happy to have lived to see the long-ignored achievements of the Tuskegee pilots win societal recognition. In 2007, he was in attendance when President George W. Bush collectively presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal – the nation’s highest civilian award.

“I would just want to be recognized as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots to fly for Uncle Sam,” Wheeler said. “We had a proud record, and eventually we were deemed to be heroes.”

For the 106th, A Bittersweet Goodbye

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2011 at 2:49 pm

This article appeared in Newsday, Sunday, July 10

The Shuttle Atlantis, hours before the final liftoff of America's current manned space program. NASA photo.

By Martin C. Evans, Newsday. Patrick Air Force Base, Fl. – In the moments before the shuttle Atlantis rocketed skyward from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday, a Long Island-based team of Air Force rescue fliers readied themselves in a cargo plane idling on a runway not far away.

They wanted very much not to be needed.

If a disaster forced the shuttle’s four astronauts to ditch into the ocean, it would be up to these fliers to fly as far as 300 miles over the Atlantic to help find them, pluck them from the sea and bring them to safety.

As they waited, everything they would need was inside their plane — rubberized boats, scuba equipment, radios, cutting tools, flotation devices and medical supplies.

Between them, the 15-member crew — members of the New York National Guard’s 106th Air Rescue Wing based at Westhampton Beach — had tens of thousands of hours of experience working on rescues. Some had traveled to the battlefields of Iraq, the mountaintops in Afghanistan, or to stricken vessels far out into the North Atlantic.

“We hope and pray they don’t have their worst day,” Senior Master Sgt. Michael Murphy said of the astronauts a few hours before launch time. “But if they do, we hope we have our best day.”

Members of the Air Rescue Wing have been part of rescue teams for each of the 108 other shuttle launches since the Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger explosion. That disaster, which claimed the lives of all seven members of the shuttle’s crew, persuaded NASA to expand its astronaut recovery program. NASA tapped the 106th, with its extensive maritime rescue experience, to help develop the sea rescue program it has used ever since.

By launch time Friday, members of the 106th had done all they could to prepare. As it was the last launching of America’s space shuttle program, it would be the last time these rescue fliers would be on the ready as a shuttle was launched into space.

Now, all they could do was wait.

Murphy, who grew up in Florida, had witnessed firsthand the shuttle program on its most tragic day.

He was a middle school student living near Tampa when the Challenger was launched. He and fellow students looked east from their school, traced the Challenger’s path as it climbed from the distant horizon, then were stunned when it suddenly disappeared. They knew a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire, was on board.

“We all knew immediately what had happened,” Murphy recalled.

“It really affected everyone in my school,” Murphy said. “It was the first time that a schoolteacher had been picked as part of the shuttle crew, and a lot of my teachers had wanted to be picked. So when it exploded, everyone was just numb.”

Murphy, 39, said he had no idea he would eventually serve as a guardian angel to the astronauts when he joined the Air Force. All he wanted to do was avoid a life of dead-end jobs and drinking binges he said consumed many of his childhood peers.

He applied for a position in the Air Force’s elite Pararescue program, survived a two-year training program that combines survival, mountain climbing, parachuting, scuba and a host of other skills, and in 1992 became one of only 11 of more than 80 of his classmates who earned the pararescueman’s signature maroon beret.

His first ocean rescue mission sent him to the aid of a Japanese tuna trawler off the coast of Iceland. Later, he flew to the aid of a heart-attack victim who was stricken in the Bering Sea far off the coast of Alaska.

“I became a better PJ [parajumper] because of going out on missions and getting experience,” he said. “You can train and train, but every single mission is different.”

Friday’s launch brings to a close the last major contribution Long Island has made to the nation’s space program. Parts of the shuttle’s wing and tail were developed here when Grumman — which also built the Apollo Lunar Module — was based in Bethpage. And the 9,000-foot runway at Francis S. Gabreski Airport, where the 106th is based in Westhampton, served as a backup landing site for the shuttle during launches that took it just east of Long Island.

Members of the 106th — which includes part-time guardsmen who are police officers, firefighters, airline pilots and even a New York City subway mechanic in their civilian lives — say they are hopeful manned space exploration will resume eventually under a new program, and that they will be called on for future rescue missions.

But for now, what was the final launch of America’s 30-year space shuttle program was a bittersweet moment for members of the unit, said Lt. Col. Scott Stenger, who served as a backup rescue mission commander during Friday’s launch.

Final launch of the Atlantis. NASA photo


“It’s an exciting day, but it’s a bit of a sad day,” said Stenger, 38, of Flanders. “We go all over the world, but this is a very special mission. This is something everyone with the 106th has been proud to do.”

For his part, Murphy said he is more than happy to have spent years training for a launch disaster that was never repeated.

“It’s good to see,” Murphy said of Friday’s flawless launch. “We’ve trained all these years for a contingency that never happened.”