John Monaco | Photo by Ken Gabrielsen
With diverse backgrounds and roles in the U.S. Armed Forces, these veterans and Westchesterites tell stories of their past and present.
By Paul Adler, Nick Brandi, Cristiana Caruso & Michelle Gillan Larkin
Regardless of the circumstances or political climate at any given time, to serve one’s country is an honorable pursuit. So, in recognition of Veterans Day, we culled the county to profile seven U.S. Armed Forces veterans, from WWII to the War in Afghanistan, with diverse backgrounds and unique stories to share.
UNITED STATES ARMY STAFF SERGEANT JOHN MONACO
U.S. ARMY, 1943–1946 AGE: 96 PLACE OF RESIDENCE: YONKERS
World War II was at full steam when a teenage John Monaco began yearning to follow his friends into the Army to defend their country. He was told he was too young and advised to stay in school and let the Army draft him. Shortly after his 18th birthday, in 1943, that’s exactly what happened.
Following extensive training stateside, Monaco was sent overseas as a combat infantry soldier and tank commander. “The war was nothing like I thought it would be — nowhere near it,” he says. “I absolutely cheated death five times. Bombs right behind me; bullets flying — one nicked my right ear.”
Under the command of the legendary General George S. Patton, Monaco fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest and bloodiest single battle waged by the U.S. during the war. “Forty-one friggin’ days, four feet of snow, and 35 below zero,” he recalls. Nineteen thousand Americans perished as a result, with countless others injured and/or missing, leaving Monaco with the burning question: Why did God spare me and not them?
Monaco left the Army after the war, and upon returning home found it nearly impossible to find a job and even harder to find anyone who understood what he was battling on an emotional level. “They called it ‘combat fatigue,’ and they didn’t know what to do with us,” shares Monaco. He says the only help he received was from a family friend. “She said, ‘John, write down what’s bothering you, read it three times, and then throw it away.’” He did just that, and to this day, he continues to write poems — some he shares, most he keeps private — to ease the war’s inexorable emotional toll. “I can’t discuss what I lived through.”
Today, at nearly 97 years old (father of eight, grandpa to 14), Monaco flies the flag 24 hours a day at his home and wears the medals he earned for bravery and heroic achievement — the Bronze Star among them — on his Army hat. “People still salute me; they give me hugs and want to talk to me.” Especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, when he assembles with immediate and extended family to attend neighborhood parades and ceremonies. If he’s so moved, he might read a poem aloud at one of the gatherings. Otherwise, he says, “I cry and say my prayers.”
CORPORAL VIVIANA DECOHEN
U.S. MARINE CORPS, 1984–1987 AGE: 57 PLACE OF RESIDENCE: MOUNT VERNON
Not even the staunchest nonbeliever can deny that within the Mount Vernon Veteran Affairs office, there is a divine aura. That presence isn’t a celestial being nor an otherworldly visitor; it’s U.S. Marine Corps veteran and department chair Viviana DeCohen, affectionately known as Mama V.
Before she was Mama V, she was Corporal DeCohen, who served in the Marines after the Reagan administration had drastically cut educational scholarships, forcing her to leave college behind. After four years serving her country during the Grenada conflict, DeCohen began a new life and career in a North Carolina Sears, working with auto parts. But when the economy shifted dramatically in the late ’80s, Viviana lost her job and then her house. She was living on the street, with two small children, and there was nothing the government could do for her.
“I know what it is to be the veteran who lost everything,” she says, just as a veteran wanders into her office, in Mount Vernon City Hall, looking for anything from a shirt to wear to a job interview to a simple comb. She has outfitted the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to be a place of comfort and reprieve. There’s a coffee machine for those who need a cup and board games for those looking to pass the time. There’s also a smile waiting on the face of someone who understands what they’ve gone through, emotionally and physically.
“We’re giving people back their lives. We’re taking veterans who were previously invisible and watch them transform and give them a place to heal,” says DeCohen, who voluntarily moved her desk into the waiting room of the department so that her office space could instead be transformed into an apparel outlet serving the community. Adorned with star-spangled curtains and vintage military memorabilia, Kristyn’s Closet offers designer clothes (sometimes with tags still on them), shoes, pantry items, and toiletries, where veterans can come and “shop.” From these humble confines, DeCohen and her team of volunteer veterans serve more than 3,000 people each year.
But more profoundly, there are two cushiony chairs perched in the middle of the closet that almost seem to possess special properties. “People come in here, and they’re healed,” says DeCohen, speaking of the innumerable people who have crossed the Closet’s threshold. “They feel peace here, and they feel that they matter again.”
There is a heartbeat reverberating through the walls, the manifestation of all the love that DeCohen and her team have imprinted into helping veterans that would have otherwise disappeared, faded into the city sidewalk as nameless, invisible shapes. And that palpable force of devotion, of grace, has only just begun.
“Service never ends,” says DeCohen. “In fact, my service truly began after my time as a Marine.” She serves anyone who walks into the office far beyond material goods. DeCohen has created a family within her department, and families support one another. They also hold each other accountable. “I’ve called people at their homes to remind them to do their homework. I’ve helped vets in crisis who could not turn anywhere else. This is more than just a job for me. It’s a blessing.”
The real blessing is Viviana DeCohen, who took the lowest point in her life and turned it into a legacy of helping others. Instead of leaving the trauma and pain behind to move on, she peers beyond the veil of who society chooses to shut out the most and says, “What can I do for you?”
SERGEANT DANNY SOUSA
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS, OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, 2008–2012 AGE: 31 HOMETOWN: MOUNT VERNON
Danny Sousa did not join the Marines at age 18 to fulfill some divine purpose. Nor was he part of a patriotic lineage that gave its firstborn sons to a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. In fact, it was an escape in every sense of the word.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t want to go to college,” says Sousa, now 31-years old. “I felt like I needed to get out of New York, and the only way to do it other than hitchhiking was to join the military.”
After more than a year of boot camp and training, Sousa was deployed to Afghanistan as a member of Operation Enduring Freedom, manning the turret of combat vehicles during missions and convoys. Sousa saw active fire at the Battle of Marjah, in which the United States and several other countries fought to remove the Taliban from the southernmost stronghold. “You’re not in the zone 24/7, but when you have a mission, and you’re pumped, your senses heighten,” says Sousa. “Watching this unfold in front of me was surreal, after so much time training and preparing, your muscle memory just takes over.”
Sousa served as a squad leader for the efficiency, welfare, and discipline of the Marines. He managed high-volume training exercises and was a point person for emergency situations. On top of his bravery in the field, Sousa also oversaw the distribution of bullets as an ammunition technician. “You’re physically handing people their bullets,” explains Sousa. “I knew what these were going to be used for. You don’t need to think about anything else.”
When the U.S. abruptly pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation, there was deep criticism from both sides. But for Sousa, the reaction was less visceral and more one of solace.
“I was relieved when I heard,” says Sousa. “It meant there were no more soldiers heading over there. It only got worse from when we left. We knew it would, and now it’s over. No one else was being deployed just to die anymore.”
For Sousa, he remembers his time in the Marines with deep pride but equally deep sadness. While serving his country, he endured and encountered unspeakable acts, including losing troops just a few feet away from him. “There’s a lot of dissociating,” he admits. “Coming back, it was stressful to stand on lines or be in crowded places. Jump scares would terrify me for hours afterward. I still can’t watch war movies. That’s why my team and I check on each other as much as possible. We’re out of Afghanistan, but we keep that same level of brotherhood and camaraderie.”
LIEUTENANT WAYNE SOBERS
U.S. NAVY, 1959–1966 AGE: 84 PLACE OF RESIDENCE: WHITE PLAINS
Waynett (“Wayne”) Sobers enjoys a lineage of distinguished service to his country. His uncle, Technical Sergeant Lewis M. Sobers, was a Tuskegee Airman who trained mechanics to keep the planes safe and functional for the history-making WWII pilots. But Lewis would not be the last of his family to shatter glass ceilings.
Having earned his Bachelor of Science degree in meteorology from CCNY, Sobers went to work at the Weather Bureau in Manhattan. When he informed his boss, a U.S. Navy commander, that he’d applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS), his boss said, “You know, they only take one in 10.” Sobers’ riposte was simple: “Well, I intend to be one of those one in 10… just letting you know ahead of time.”
When Sobers reported to OCS on July 27, 1959, he couldn’t help but notice the pigmentary landscape. “Out of 1,050 candidates in the 45th OCS class, only two were Black — one of whom was me,” he recalls, adding: “When you’re one of only two out of a thousand, you bet your ass you always try to know where the other Black guy is!”
After graduating from OCS, newly minted Ensign Wayne Sobers reported to Quonset Point Naval Air Station, in Rhode Island, where he remained until 1961. Stints as staff meteorologist and advance airbase meteorologist in places like Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Crete would follow.
This was an especially intense time for young Sobers. He was using his skills and training to support antisubmarine squadrons that were protecting the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russian subs were following the Sixth Fleet wherever it went, while U.S. antisubmarine aircraft were doggedly hunting the subs.
“To make matters worse,” says Sobers, “the U.S. Navy had recently deployed its first nuclear aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, so the Russians were on that like white on rice.” Sobers adds that during that tinderbox time, the Americans were aggressively dropping torpedoes and depth charges on Russian subs. “I can’t give you numbers, but that resulted in a lot of dead Russians in the Mediterranean.”
Despite the dangers, Sobers says he’s proud to have served his country and would do it all again. Sure, he encountered his share of racism along the way, but the incidents were relatively few. They did, however, sometimes come from unexpected sources.
“You’d think the Southern boys would have given me the hardest time,” says Sobers with a laugh, “but it was the guys from places like New Hampshire and Massachusetts who caused the most problems.” Sobers adds that while he never looked for trouble, he didn’t kowtow to intolerance and that there were several White officers who had his back.
Lt. Wayne Sobers was discharged from the Navy in 1966. He eventually earned an MBA from Baruch College and went on to careers in insurance, advertising, banking, and as a certified life-and-business coach. Veterans Day is very special to Sobers, who every year receives handwritten notes from his three granddaughters and the Sunday school of his church. Three years ago, he was the keynote speaker at the White Plains Veterans Day celebration.
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS CAPTAIN ED O’SULLIVAN
U.S. NAVY, 1956–1965 U.S. MARINE CORPS, 1965–1966 AGE: 82 PLACE OF RESIDENCE: YONKERS
Ed O’Sullivan was 6 years old when World War II ended and the soldiers returned home to the States and to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he lived. “I remember the celebrations in the streets. People were singing and hugging. It went on for 12 hours,” he recalls. “I was so proud; I was so impressed.” Those veterans were his neighbors, and they would become his mentors. “They were pillars of the community, and I aspired to be like them.”
After high school, O’Sullivan announced his intention to join the Marines. “My mother wanted no part of that,” he says. “As a compromise, she signed me up for the Navy.” A fleet appointment followed, as did his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy.
He spent several years at sea aboard Navy ships, patrolling the waters around Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. But in the fall of 1964, at age 25, his request to transfer to the Marines was approved. “I got sent to infantry training, and bam! I was sent to Vietnam.”
As a company commander to approximately 170 troops, O’Sullivan operated all along the North Vietnam border. “You had to be vigilant at all times. It was nerve-wracking.” Front-line soldiers, he notes, spent an average of 270 days in combat. “I did at least that, with two close calls and probably more I’m not aware of.” In one case, the “insect” that buzzed past his head on a beautiful moonlit night in a jungle clearing was actually the bullet of a Vietcong soldier, but “We got him.”
O’Sullivan was also sent to Saigon as an advisor to South Vietnamese paratroopers. Together, they captured Vietcong forces, and their mission was a success. After a decade in the military, O’Sullivan went home — with a Bronze Star with the “V” for Valor for heroism in combat and a warning to never travel in his uniform. It was 1966, and the war was far from over. “I said baloney; I wore my uniform.” He remembers the “crazies running around, spitting at us,” though he never experienced such treatment firsthand.
In thinking back over his time in service to his country, O’Sullivan cherishes the camaraderie he shared with his fellow soldiers. “You never had to worry about the guy on your left or on your right. There was no cutting and running, no letting your buddy down. It was a wonderful feeling.” Similarly, he felt fully supported by the White House while overseas, but “the administration gets a black mark for not telling us about Agent Orange.”
Today, as a longtime resident of the Crestwood section of Yonkers, O’Sullivan is proud to live among neighbors who “go out of their way” to observe Veterans Day with an annual parade and ceremony he faithfully attends. That said, he considers Memorial Day much more poignant because “Veterans Day is for the living.”
GUNNERY SERGEANT LU CALDARA
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS, 1953–1959 UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS RESERVES, 1959–1961; 1966–1979 AGE: 86 TOWN OF RESIDENCE: OSSINING
For Lu Caldara, a career in the military was always about helping others. Nowadays, whether the Ossining local is shepherding teens as a leader of the Young Marines — for which he has been volunteering for more than 55 years — working with The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, or donating his time to the Montrose VA Medical Center, Caldara focuses on aiding those in need, much like Caldara himself was when he enlisted, in 1953.
“I’m a city kid from Queens,” shares Caldara. “I ended up living with my grandmother, since I was too much like my dad. We had conflict all the time. I was very depressed then, even though I was on the honor roll. During my senior year of high school, I said, ‘I’m done with being logical. Let me go to war and serve a purpose.’”
Caldara ended up joining the Marines, “since the Marines had that image of ‘first to fight.’” Caldara was barely 18 when he enlisted and served as a gunnery sergeant from 1953 to 1961. “They put me in communications, but I was in every type of unit except aviation: support battalions, infantry, artillery.” Caldara never ended up fighting in Korea but rather served in Japan, where he spent nearly 14 years, and at other locations within the theater of the war.
Even after he returned to civilian life and took a job at IBM, Caldara joined up with the Marine Corps Reserves in 1966 to protect his country during the Vietnam War. “I joined the 6th Communication Battalion, which is now in Brooklyn but was then where SUNY Maritime is now,” explains Caldara. “We met at that Naval Reserve station but, during Vietnam, everyone was called to go to war except the Marine Corps Reserve.”
Realizing his future might not lie on the battlefield, Caldara focused instead on aiding others through military service. “I volunteer with the Montrose VA Medical Center and started working with veterans wherever I could, helping them get jobs [with the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans] or making sure veterans didn’t lose their jobs when they came home from serving.” Caldara began working at Montrose in 1964 and does to this day.
Additionally, Caldara serves on the board of the New York Council Navy League but is perhaps most passionate about his work with the River Towns Young Marines. “I started in 1965, and I have been doing it ever since. I was the second national director, but I don’t do it as a recruiting tool for the Marine Corps. Our primarily goal is for the kids’ education,” notes Caldara. “The Young Marines’ purpose is to bring youngsters together to know respect. I don’t use the word discipline; I use structure. The military drills are all about helping the kids listen, and if you can listen, you can absorb.”
TECHNICAL SERGEANT PAT PUSH
U.S. AIR FORCE RESERVE, 1977–1988; U.S. COAST GUARD AUXILIARY 2012-PRESENT AGE: 73 PLACE OF RESIDENCE: NEW ROCHELLE
Pat Push never let much stand in her way. When the New Rochelle resident decided to enlist at age 28, she figured her future in the Armed Forces would be unconventional. But as the first woman jet-engine mechanic in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and a proud lesbian, Push helped pave the way for generations of out LGBTQ+ individuals helping to protect our country.
“I’ve always liked the military,” recalls Push. “But before that time, to be [a woman] in the military, you either had to be a secretary or a nurse or a doctor, and I was none of those. I couldn’t join the Air Force, since I was too old, at 28. But I learned I could join the Reserves and be a mechanic. They would teach me.”
Push ended up serving honorably for 11 years, working primarily on jet engines of the Lockheed C141 Starlifter and maintaining records for mechanics in the 514th Field Maintenance Squadron. Her tours of active duty brought her to Spain and Germany. “Germany is an amazing place,” says Push somewhat wistfully. “There are five breweries in every town, and all of the beer is delicious.”
This did not mean things were always easy. “It was awful for two reasons: One was being the first and only woman there for a while. I would overhear the way men would speak about women — even women they said they loved. It was gross and horrifying, and it was really hard to deal with,” shares Push. “The other thing was that they were always looking for me to fail because I am a woman.”
But Push is quick to note that she looks back quite fondly on her time in the service, even when navigating the complex issue of her sexual orientation. “I had my own version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” says Push, who notes more women soon joined her, “and that is: If you don’t ask me, then I’m not going to tell you. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you.”
After leaving the Reserves, in 1988, Push began helping an entirely new generation of young women in the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, which she still serves to this day. “I see the way things are for women in the Coast Guard, and it’s amazing. It’s night and day how much its improved,” says Push. “There is still that siren call of the closet — that if you want to make the grade and become an admiral or general, then you better not [come out]. I think the circumstances are better now, but it takes courage on the part of the officer or enlisted person to do so, because there are people who still have closed minds. I cannot for the life of me conceive how being gay would make you less of a serviceperson.”
These are the events that the Mount Vernon Veteran’s Affairs Department will be holding as a celebration of their annual “Veteran’s Week”:
Mon, Nov 8: collection of supplies for Afya Foundation, Yonkers: hygiene products, non-latex gloves, etc.
Tues, Nov 9: free haircuts with Westchester Barber Academy, 206 S Fulton Ave, Mount Vernon, 11 AM–2 PM.
Wed, Nov 10: Wellness Wednesday: blood pressure & vitals checks; COVID-19 vaccines, 11 AM–4 PM, Neighborhood Health Center, 107 W 4th St, Mount Vernon
Thurs, Nov 11: Veterans Day Program & Celebration, Mount Vernon City Hall, 1 Roosevelt Sq, 10:30 AM
Fri, Nov 12: Day of Volunteerism; Letter Writing to United for Troops (paper & envelopes available) & delivery of collected supplies to Afya Foundation.
Sat 13: The Barbara Giordano Foundation’s Dedication of the Peace Garden at the Greenburgh Library, 300 Tarrytown Rd, Elmsford, 11 AM