PORT JEFFERSON, N.Y. (WCBS 880) — It’s called the forgotten war, but a hero’s daughter will never forget the sacrifices of her father, Private First Class Walter E. Decker, during his time in the Army in World War I. A special golden crucifix passed on to her keeps him first place.
“I was close to my dad growing up, and I always remembered in the summer, he’d be wearing these long johns, and the tissue on his skin was so thin, that he’d bleed through,” said Carol Fazio, 77, of her father. “He suffered ‘til the day he died from mustard gas.”
Decker’s hand-written discharge papers notes he was gassed on October 15, 1918 while serving in France for just under 10 months.
He entered the service at 16, just before his 17th birthday, after his father died. He mailed each of his allotment checks to his mother.
“He was a communication expert. His company would go up to see the enemy and to send back [intelligence] to his troops,” said Fazio. “On the way back, that’s when the enemy got them and shot them.”
German troops attacked Unit Company B in the 303rd Field Signal Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division in the French forests with mustard gas.
“My father was left for dead. They thought he was dead,” Fazio said, adding several of his cohorts were killed.
Decker was 20 at the time of the gas attack. He died in 1980 at the age of 82. He is buried at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island where local soldiers from all the wars are buried with their spouses.
Private First Class Decker received the Purple Heart in the first year the award was instituted, 1932, on the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth.
He also received the Distinguished Service Cross – the second highest decoration for valor.
But it is a different cross passing through the generations that’s revered by Decker’s daughter.
“At the time, the French monks used to go through the forest when they knew it was safe and call out to find out anybody who was alive. And, they heard my father, and what they did was they placed this cross on each of the bodies that were ready to go back, back to a hospital,” said Fazio while holding the golden crucifix.
Fazio just learned of the cross last year when she visited her niece and nephew in Wilmington, North Carolina. The cross made its way to Decker’s step-son Daniel who was a Marine, and then, Daniel’s brother Alfred when he died. The family wanted Carol to have it, as she is Decker’s biological daughter.
“I had no idea. It was really overwhelming, it really was, to think I was holding something that was 100 years and it stood on my father in the forest,” Fazio said.
When Carol was growing up, it was common for disabled veterans to be at her house. Decker was active in the Disabled American Veterans Charity (DAV) after leaving the Army and would visit wounded soldiers at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Veterans Affairs facilities.
“My father would walk them through it,” said Fazio who saw her father as a caregiver, serving throughout his lifetime.
Like many WWI veterans, Decker did not talk about his service, what he saw overseas or the gas attack in France that left him suffering until the day he died. The stories were passed on through family members who gleaned information over time.
“One thing I asked him about the war and about his involvement, everything with the VFW, I asked him, if he had to do it all over again,” said Fazio. “I said to him, ‘Dad, would you do that?’ I said, ‘Would you go into the service?’ And he said, ‘Without a doubt.'”
NEW YORK, NY – A West Point graduate created a unique social experience in an age when no one seems to look up from their cell phones.
“Drinks are things that bring people together,” said Owen Meyer, CEO of Liquor Lab, which is billed as “Manhattan’s first interactive cocktail experience.”
On a crisp autumn evening, a diverse group of people arrived at the cozy second-floor space in the SoHo neighborhood on a romantic cobblestone street reminiscent of old New York to indulge in a French-themed night of cognacs and cuisine.
“Four different cocktails on every menu and the menus are relegated by themes,” said Meyer, adding, “We might have margaritas and tacos one night, we might have bourbon and barbecue, we might have Japanese spirits and sushi.”
Music sets the mood and people make new friends over drinks and food, catered by local establishments. They also learn a little history related to the night’s theme and how to be their own bartender.
This week, Liquor Lab launched Dollar Cocktail Club, a product line of $12 mix kits with the exact ingredients to make a dozen drinks with a bottle of liquor. Meyer expects it to be a popular holiday gift item that is cross-promotional with their classes.
Liquor Lab has a calendar of events on their website, which they sell-out every night with a capacity of 50 people to maximize the intimate experience they label “social mixology.” They also offer private and corporate events.
“We have a little old couple sitting in the back corner, we have a newly met couple in the front corner, they’re having the same experience and they’re enjoying it equally as much,” Meyer said.
But, not everyone is on a date. Friends, colleagues and strangers come by for a cheerful evening that costs less than most nights out in the Big Apple – $65 for most classes.
Meyer, who turns 33 next month, is an old soul who feels he’s in a traditional industry unaffected by technological advancements. His company could fill a societal need when seemingly everything has become politically divided and intense. The atmosphere at Liquor Lab is the opposite – relaxed, enlightening and refreshing.
“After I got out of the military, I wanted to do something that was a little more interactive and fun, so I started working with Jim Beam, now known as Beam Suntory,” said Meyer who worked there for nearly three years as a “spirit specialist” and in a sales capacity after two foot injuries and a back injury cut his military career short.
Meyer said he has come to realize the “cliché” of taking calculated risks is true. He honed his leadership skills at West Point.
“SOP – Standard Operating Procedures – we harp on that here probably more than anything because everything we do here is very repetitive,” said Meyer of his staff’s routine in setting each table. “In the military, it’s your weapons, your equipment, it’s your gear, it’s your reports. From an officer’s standpoint and a manager’s standpoint there’s also an assimilation there with managing people, making it very clear their task and purpose each day, and those are things we do every day here.”
Meyer tested Liquor Lab in Chicago and launched a pop-up shop in Southampton before opening in SoHo last September. Liquor Lab has been profitable since its inception, gaining customers solely by word-of-mouth.
They are expanding nationwide over the next year, opening in 10 cities, including Nashville, Denver and Las Vegas.
NEW YORK, NY — Two brothers – both Army veterans – are expanding their unique meal plan company called Kettlebell Kitchen, which incorporates the fitness and nutritional routines they mastered in the service.
“It came from a class of mine at HBS (Harvard Business School) where I thought deeply about what I’m passionate about,” said Joe Lopez-Gallego who graduated Harvard after his time as an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot where he managed three airfields and 80 soldiers, and led a platoon that flied VIP’s such as General Ricardo Sanchez.
“[The class] tells you to think about what you are passionate about and try to build a career around that, and for me, it’s about helping people and I have a particular passion for fitness.” Joe was a certified fitness instructor in the Army and he played water polo at West Point.
He put his class syllabus into practice. He combined his love for fitness and food, which he and his younger brother Andy inherited from his parents.
“It started by helping my mom manage her weight, putting her on an exercise and nutrition program that gave her significant results – both in her weight and in her energy level,” Joe said.
He called Andy and they both agreed there was a need for a personalized meal plan program that they felt no company on the market did successfully. Andy hopped on a plane from California to New York and started the business with Joe in 2013.
“[We] researched recipes, weights, portions and looked at the really quality match of nutrients that matter in a meal, how they affect the body, how they do their training and what different timing windows that work,” said Andy, a retired Army platoon leader and combat engineer.
Joe and Andy felt they could fill a void by developing personalized products for specific goals of strength, endurance and cardio – skills they developed in the military.
“We look to formulate specific meals around those fitness elements,” Andy said, adding, “We’re a brand that’s performance-driven and fitness-based.”
With the consultation of dietitians, they tested their products in a small rental kitchen in the Bronx. Now, along with Chef and Culinary Expert Greg Grossman, they deliver tens and thousands of heathy, customized meal plans nationally each week.
Kettlebell Kitchen is expanding to Los Angeles where they will deliver meal kits to trendy fitness gyms for people to coordinate their nutrition and exercise. They found a niche in sending their meals to gyms where trainers can coach their clients on the most effective timing for diet and exercise.
The mantra that they work by is “Feed the Champion in You” – a motto that motivates and inspires the co-founders and their customers to meet their fitness goals.
Kettlebell Kitchen landed on the Inc. 5000 issue of Inc. Magazine of the fastest growing and innovative companies in the United States, earning $12.5 million in revenue last year. Joe and Andy employ about 300 people.
Joe said the leadership positions that he held in the service were invaluable experience for his career.
“They put you as second lieutenant in charge of a group of folks who have much more experience, much more knowledge than you and you learn to lead them and you learn to work with them,” said Joe, continuing, “That taught me how I can leverage the expertise of all the people on the team to build a cohesive unit together and to get results and I think that was a very valuable piece of training that still serves me today.”
Joe and Andy look back on the birth of Kettlebell Kitchen, when they crafted a diet and exercise framework for their mother, and see their role today as delivering those personalized plans to one client at a time.
NEW YORK, NY — Sometimes horsing around is therapy.
For Gold Star father Ken Boyd and U.S. Army veteran Mary Ballengee, equestrian therapy has been instrumental in survival.
“When you become a Gold Star parent, it’s probably the darkest, deepest day of your life,” said Boyd whose only child C.J. served as a U.S. Marine Corps corporal. He died in Afghanistan. “We found some solace through equine therapy, working with horses. [It] truly saved my life from suicide and other bad things that go on and happen.”
Boyd’s wife joined a Gold Star mothers retreat hosted by BraveHearts where they went horseback riding. Boyd saw progress in his wife’s spirits, but he was reluctant to join. Eventually, she encouraged him and he has never looked back.
“In horses you have to build trust, and the horse will trust you, you trust the horse. It’s just this amazing thing that happens with a horse,” Boyd said, adding he now volunteers several days a week with BraveHearts, which is a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the veterans suicide rate of 20 deaths per day.
“I love going there because we do retreats for veterans and you see some of these kids that come in that they don’t want to be there. They get off the bus from the VA and they don’t really care about a horse, they don’t do anything. Two hours later they have a smile on their face, there’s brightness in their eyes, they’re talking, they found something that trusts them, that they can trust. It’s just amazing to see a transformation in how they want to come back and how they want to do things,” said Boyd. “So, we’ve dedicated our lives and our future to pay it forward on our son’s behalf to help all the other veterans, to help take care of these kids when they come back.”
Boyd will be join Ballengee and many others on BraveHearts’ “Trail to Zero” – a 20-mile horseback ride around Manhattan on Saturday, September 15 to raise awareness of the high veterans’ suicide rate. Participants will ride through the heart of New York City, including Times Square, Central Park and the World Trade Center. They both hope to bring that trail down to zero.
Ballengee served from 1975-78. She battled with trauma from active duty for nearly two decades before she was introduced to equine therapy with a fellow veteran.
“I was really shut down and this mustang, he saved my life,” said Ballengee who now goes by the nickname “Mustang Mary.” “He actually taught me many things. He taught me how to breathe out, how to slow down, he taught me patience, he taught me not to be so hard on myself. He gave me life, itself.”
Mustang Mary felt a bond with Pecos instantly.
“In the process of me gentling him, and letting down my walls for the first time in 40 years and discovering myself, I also felt a responsibility that he had to be auctioned off and I could not imagine that but I had to have him believe in people,” Ballengee said of Pecos, which was initially owned by the U.S. Government.
Mustang Mary said the night Pecos was set to be auctioned, she was planning on killing herself. But, the person who bought Pecos gave the horse to her and she was rejuvenated.
“[Pecos] just told me you have to do something. You have to do something for the other mustangs and you have to do something for the other veterans such as yourself,” Ballengee said.
Since then, Mary helped launch an all-female veterans riding group in Texas where she lives with Pecos. She is now a PATH certified instructor through BraveHearts’ training and certification program for veterans.
Mustang Mary will proudly ride “Mighty” around the Big Apple “Trail to Zero.”
For her and Boyd, the task is quite mighty, but they’ve saddled in for a determined equestrian mission to help our heroes like they were healed through the power of horse.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Donato Panico watched in horror as al-Qaeda hijackers crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center.
He felt he had to do something right away, and as the owner of a Smithtown deli for more than three decades, Panico knew he could provide a needed service.
“(My friend) was telling me that all kinds of commanding officers were killed down there and that they had no food system and it was in total chaos,” said Panico.
He then prepared his catering trucks with sandwiches and drove to Ground Zero the next morning. He got through most of the tight security checkpoints in Manhattan, but he was still far away from the Trade Center when commanding officer Louis Pacheco recognized Panico from his Long Island deli and ushered him into site so he could fill a void serving starving, dehydrated, weary, angry and saddened First Responders.
“A couple months later, (Pacheco) presented me with a flag that they hung in front of the Millennium Hotel,” Panico said. The hotel, which is adjacent to One World Trade Center, suffered significant damage in the terrorist attacks.
“He presented it to me and I presented it to a friend of mine in the store whose son was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. He hung it over his camp,” said Panico, continuing, “He had the flag commissioned by President (George W.) Bush and he returned it to me 4 years later.”
Panico continued to lend the gifted flag to local police, fire and veterans organizations on Long Island.
“You can’t hold onto something if you don’t give it away,” said Panico when asked why he felt so strongly about imparting such a meaningful and emotional souvenir to patriotic organizations. “It’s not my flag, it’s ours.”
His foundation Heros 4 Our Heroes was born from tragedy. Today, Panico aims to keep a “constant awareness” for the need to take care of police officers, firefighters and our veterans who make sacrifices to keep us safe and free. He is currently undertaking a project to re-build the patio at the Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Northport, Long Island.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) was the only local politician to show up at Donato’s fist Heros 4 Heroes Foundation event after 9/11; Panico said his first impression of Zeldin was he’s “special.”
The Republican congressman was deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the 82nd Airborne Division and is currently in the Army Reserves. In a sit-down interview with him, Donato and this reporter, he praised Donato as a selfless patriot while he engaged in the same type of organic camaraderie he has with fellow soldiers. Zeldin said Panico has the “type of character, values, ethics and beliefs” that guided his selfless actions on 9/11.
“If he was on the first floor of the Trade Center that day, he would have went straight up and started rendering first-aid to people even though he wasn’t NYPD or FDNY,” Congressman Zeldin said. “That’s his character.”
Recently, Panico had one particular person he wanted to lend “our” Old Glory that flew in front of the Millennium Hotel on September 11 to: The President of the United States.
Congressman Zeldin invited Panico to President Donald J. Trump’s first State of the Union Address in January. Panico brought the flag to Washington with him in hopes to give it to the President. That’s when Rep. Zeldin learned of the sentimental history of that American Flag. Donato did not get to meet Mr. Trump that day, but Mr. Zeldin held onto the flag for the right time, and on June 20, the Congressman received a phone call from The White House for a last minute policy meeting with President Trump and several representatives.
Zeldin recalled, “All I was thinking of was ‘where’s the flag?’”
After the meeting, Congressman Zeldin told President Trump about the flag.
“You could tell the story was impacting him, he was deeply moved by it, he was moved by Donato’s story, the first responders, the journey of that flag from the Trade Center, overseas being flown over a base to back home,” said Mr. Zeldin, adding that the President brought him into the Oval Office where he had an aide write down Panico’s story for a museum, and posed for a picture behind his Resolute Desk to send home to Donato.
Congressman Zeldin says when he meets with the President like he did when he rode in his motorcade with him to a GOP fundraiser in Southampton last month, President Trump asked about Donato.
Donato feels an unspoken bond with the current Commander-In-Chief, a man he has never met, but respects as a patriot, as he does his fellow New Yorkers and Americans who still suffer pain, sorrow, and illness from 9/11.
Panico still shakes when the calendar turns to September. He and we will Never Forget.