University Director of Veterans Affairs, City University of New York
Years Served: 1986-1991
Branch: Army Reserves
Highest Rank Earned: Private First Class
Lisa Beatha, a veteran of the Army Reserves, has special expertise as the university director of veterans affairs at the City University of New York. She joined the Reserves to earn a credential in an allied health profession without the cost of a college tuition. She became an Army medic, and earned the rank of E-3 private first class before leaving in 1991.
Beatha has spent much of her post-military life at CUNY, where she obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Prior to her current position, she was CUNY’s central director of transfer information. She assisted veterans who wished to use credits from their military career, giving her relevant experience when she was hired as director of veterans affairs in 2014.
“Transfer of credit is one of the heaviest lifts, but we’re trying to get more academic equity for our veterans,” Beatha says. She also oversees activities for students who are veterans, such as networking evenings and a #VeteransofCUNY social media campaign modeled on the Humans of New York blog. Through academics and events, Beatha works to ensure that veteran students don’t become isolated.
“The first time they hear no or get confused, they kind of get disconnected,” Beatha explains. “They may feel uncertain about this new environment.” Beatha sees her position as a facilitator of these transitions, making students feel comfortable in their new community.
“It’s a very rewarding role,” she says.
Senior Managing Director, Pitta Bishop Del Giorno
Years Served: 1965-1967
Highest Rank Earned: Specialist Fifth Class
Salvatore Cassano served in the Army during the Vietnam War, joined the New York City Fire Department a couple years after returning home, and ultimately rose all the way to the top of the department as commissioner.
During his long career serving the country and the city, his proudest accomplishment is rebuilding the FDNY the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We increased training. We increased our procedures. We increased the equipment that we had. We increased all levels of education in the department for every rank and I could go on and on,” says Cassano, who was one of many firefighters on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. “We just rebuilt the department from the bottom up.”
In 2006, Cassano was named chief of department, the highest-ranking uniformed position, and was promoted to commissioner in 2010 by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. During his time running the department, Cassano faced another unprecedented threat – Superstorm Sandy.
“In the time that I was commissioner, the way the department handled Hurricane Sandy, and the aftereffects of it, were not short of miraculous,” he says. “It was the worst storm that we ever faced.”
For Cassano, who now specializes in matters like crisis management and emergency response at the consulting firm Pitta Bishop Del Giorno, it all started when the Staten Islander was drafted in 1965.
“The discipline you need to be a soldier certainly carries over to the discipline you need to be a firefighter, without a doubt,” he says.
Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, state Education Department
Years Served: 2003-2007
Highest Rank Earned: Sergeant
After serving in the Marines, Danielle Discala found it difficult to transition to what she calls “regular society.” She spent time with a Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program specialist at the state Labor Department after her return. This man, a Vietnam veteran, then helped her get a job as a DVOP specialist.
Discala worked at the labor department for five years, mentoring and supporting other disabled veterans as they searched for new careers. Years after assisting someone, she would often hear back with their success stories.
“I would get a letter in the mail, or an email or a card telling me that because of something that we had said or one of our meetings, it encouraged them to pursue something else,” Discala recalls. “I was helping people and I didn’t really know it.”
In that role, she discovered that she loved working to find the right positions for any person’s needs and skill sets. She got her master’s degree at Hunter College, and was recently hired as a vocational rehabilitation specialist for the state Department of Education. Discala now works with a wider range of people with disabilities, helping not only veterans to find work.
Discala credits her boyfriend, Dennis Torres, a veterans outreach specialist at Queens College, for keeping her grounded with his support. A decade after leaving the military, Discala has not only found her community, but has helped many others find theirs.
Chief of Police, Syracuse Police Department
Years Served: 1984-2004
Branch: Army (three years), Army Reserves (17 years)
Highest Rank Earned: Sergeant First Class
Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler knows who to thank for his current position.
“Had I not gone into the military, I certainly would not have the skills to be a police officer, let alone to be a leader,” he says. “Every aspect of what allows me to be in the position that I am today is owed to and learned from the United States Army.”
Fowler joined the Army in 1984 after spending his youth under what he called “tough conditions” in St. Louis. He was inspired to join by a recruiter who told him that he could be stationed in Hawaii.
Fowler never made it to Hawaii, but during his three years in the Army and 17 years in the Reserves, he served in Germany and in Operation Desert Storm. Without the Army, he wouldn’t have started his career as a police officer, which he calls the job he was “born to do.”
In all of his years of military service, Fowler is most proud of his personal transition from a young man on the streets of St. Louis to a soldier and a police officer. However, he won’t disclose his greatest accomplishment as police chief because he is still serving in that position.
“I don't believe in bragging about the race until you've crossed the finish line, and I have yet to do that,” he explains. Nonetheless, Fowler already has a list of accomplishments to name, and more to come before he finishes the race.
Veteran Peer Navigator, Services for the UnderServed
Years Served: 4 years active duty, 1.5 years in the National Guard
Highest Rank Earned: Specialist
When he answers calls from military veterans seeking help, Jonathan Henderson knows how they feel because their stories mirror his own.
The Houston native joined the military in 2012 and trained as a paratrooper. He later moved to New York to live with a woman who is now the mother of their two daughters. But he was homeless for a month before he arrived at the United Veterans Beacon House and ultimately got his own apartment.
Now, as a veteran peer navigator for the nonprofit Services for the UnderServed, the 27-year-old answers calls from veterans on Long Island who are homeless or at risk of becoming displaced because of issues reintegrating into civilian life. He points them to programs offered by Services for the UnderServed or other organizations to help them with housing, employment and budgeting.
“Looking back, I realize if I didn’t know about the resources right away, I would still be living on the streets, I’d still be living in a car,” he says. “So, it’s great to give back.” He is now a reservist in the Army National Guard and working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Suffolk County Community College.
When veterans seek him out – on a busy day his office can get 10 to 15 calls – he reminds them that there’s hope. “You might be in a bad situation now, but think of it as: It’s only hours that you’ll be in this situation, it’s only a few days you’ll be in this situation,” he says.
Charisse N. Jamroz
Project Manager, Information Technology Department, New York City Housing Authority
Years Served: 1991-Present
Branch: Army Reserves
Higher Rank Earned: Master Sergeant
Charisse Jamroz loves living among history on the Hudson River. “Washington’s troops settled in Newburgh,” she says of her riverfront hometown in Orange County.
“I’m an old-school kind of person. The house I live in was built in 1921,” she said of the home she shares with her 5-year-old daughter, Kazmirah. “It’s an old neighborhood. That’s why I specifically chose to live in that city.”
After 26 years and counting in the Army Reserves, Jamroz is a bit of New York military historian herself. After more than a quarter-century of training, she is now an instructor, helping develop coursework for the Reserves and even mentoring other instructors.
“I consider what I do in my military capacity a professional job as well, so I treat it that way,” she says. “I look for mentors the same way I look for a mentor at work.”
Jamroz joined the Reserves at 17. She was interested in the structure of the military, and it helped pay for tuition at SUNY Buffalo State. She stayed with it, through jobs in county government, a school district, the private sector and now, at the New York City Housing Authority. Through all that time, she says her service has made her a better person.
“When you’re in the military, you’re forced to sometimes sleep in a room with complete strangers and have to deal with a lot of different personalities,” she says. “It gives you a lot of empathy … and also understanding of people as a whole.”
Founder, Fast Bags Corp.
Years Served: 1983-1990
Branch: Air Force, New York National Guard
Highest Rank Earned: Captain
Imagine being in control of the most destructive weapon in the world. For Jack Licata, this was a daily reality.
While serving in the Air Force during the Cold War, the Long Island native was stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where he served as a nuclear missile launch officer.
The experience also put Licata on a unique career path. After his time in the service, including a stint in the New York National Guard, Licata founded the company Fast Bags Corp. and developed a product known as Bagups. Bagups is an innovative, eco-friendly trash bag system that reduces the hassle of taking out and changing the trash. Licata was inspired to find a more effective means of trash management while he was in the service, as he often had to take out the trash at the nuclear facility.
Additionally, Licata’s growing company employs exclusively military veterans and people with disabilities.
“Being in the military taught me to think out of the box, be organized, how to lead people,” he says. “A big part of the military is making a difference for people. We did a lot of community service and a lot of outreach while I was in the service.”
Indeed, while his small role in helping to win the Cold War is one of Licata’s proudest accomplishments, he is equally effusive about his efforts organizing a toys, food and clothes drive in Missouri and building a group home for Long Island’s Head Injury Association.
Food Cart Lease Holder and Veterans Committee Chairman, Street Vendor Project
Years Served: 1981-1985
Highest Rank Earned: Petty Officer Second Class
He’s a proud, gay veteran, an advocate, a community board member and a photographer, but Dondi McKellar is best known for his bubbles.
McKellar became a street vendor on the advice of his therapist in 2004, and has become one of the sector’s primary advocates since then – helped by his reputation as “Dondi Bubbles,” selling bubble blowing toys on the streets of SoHo. “It took me back to a part of childhood that’s just fun,” he says. “And that’s what I stuck with. I just said, let me sell something I like selling!”
He’s since moved on from selling bubbles, but doubled down on advocacy, maintaining the long tradition of street vendors who are military veterans – a class New York City has given special rights to since 1894. McKellar has lung cancer and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from when he was sexually assaulted while serving in the Navy. He says street vending is a great way for disabled veterans like him to stay active, supplement their income and manage their own schedule to attend medical appointments.
But McKellar doesn’t just fight for veterans. Since the brutal May beating of street vendor Souleymane Porgo in the South Bronx, McKellar has been fighting for public safe vending spaces for those who feel like they “don’t warrant the same protection,” he says. “(The police) ticket vendors, all of us vendors, but when it comes down to protection, we don’t get that.”
McKellar says he’s fighting for what he loves about the city he’s lived in since 1982. “The diversity in the street is out there and it should be out there,” he says.
Vice President, United War Veterans Council
Years Served: 1988-1992
Highest Rank Earned: Corporal
Mark Otto comes from a legacy of service, as he was the fifth person in his family to join the military.
Otto did tours in Panama and in Operation Desert Storm before entering a different kind of battlefield. He became a trader on the New York Stock Exchange, a job which he compared to the television show “Survivor.” Despite finding a career after leaving the military, Otto had a difficult transition to civilian life.
“There wasn’t social media, there wasn’t all these different veterans’ service organizations,” Otto explains about his return. To prevent new veterans from feeling similarly disconnected, he works with several groups, including the United War Veterans Council. He serves as vice president of the council full time, and works part time at the NYSE. At the council, Otto plans several events, most notably the Veterans Day Parade. In 2016, 38,000 veterans marched in front of half a million spectators.
Otto also organizes rucking events, which involves carrying weighted backpacks while exercising. He talked about the mental and physical benefits that these activities provide for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, as they can work collaboratively and spend time in a community. Ultimately, Otto can’t pinpoint his single proudest accomplishment at the veterans organization, as he considers helping others to be his daily reward.
“My focus is on helping veterans that need it the most,” Otto says. “It's very fulfilling and I'm very grateful to have been given this opportunity.”
Director of Military and Veterans Liaison Services, Northwell Health
Years Served: 2000-2009
Highest Rank Earned: Staff Sergeant
Juan Serrano thinks that American society can do more to help veterans transition from military to civilian life.
“We have to change the way how companies and communities view, treat and serve those who have served us,” explains Serrano, who is now the director of military and veterans liaison services at Northwell Health, a large network of hospitals and other health care facilities. He said many new veterans feel unprepared to return to a society that doesn’t fully understand their experiences.
Serrano credits his family for providing the support that allowed him to have a successful transition after he was medically discharged from his service in the Marines. He knows that many other veterans aren’t as fortunate as he was to have this encouragement, or to enter college immediately after leaving the military as he did, or to find work with ease. So Serrano has dedicated his post-military career to facilitating those transitions for veterans.
At Northwell Health, Serrano oversees programs that provide health care and career services for veterans. One program is Barracks to Business, a series of workshops that teach resume writing, interview preparation and other skills.
Serrano emphasizes the importance of communicating with veterans about their needs. He believes the solution to easing the military to civilian transition involves education.
“It's sitting with the private sector and the not-for-profits in our community,” Serrano says. “Because that's who we come home to, that's who we belong to, and that's who we fight for.”