Director of Veterans Upward Bound, LaGuardia Community College
Years served: 1985-1989
Branch: U.S. Navy
Highest rank earned: E-4
Vicki Bello had always intended to make a career in the U.S. Navy, but circumstances changed after she became a mother, requiring her to spend more time at home. It was not long before Bello realized that her transition to civilian life would not be as smooth as she’d hoped. At first, Bello had to settle for odd jobs here and there. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and with it the one job she had truly enjoyed. It was then that Bello decided to go back to school.
After graduating from Lehman College, she found a part-time job as a peer mentor to veterans at LaGuardia Community College (where she had previously earned an associate’s degree), which ultimately led to a full-time position as program coordinator, where she took on more of a counseling role. “People would come for me for everything, whether for a MetroCard or if they were hungry, and I would send them to pantries,” she said.
When she was named director of the college’s Veterans Upward Bound program, Bello began updating the programming to meet the needs of the post-9/11 generation of returning veterans with online tutoring, more peer mentoring and other programs that she believed would allow veterans “to not only enter but succeed in postsecondary education.” Funded through a U.S. Department of Education grant, the Veterans Upward Bound program at LaGuardia College is the only such program in the tri-state area. “Most of the veterans we serve are low-income, first-generation students and what we have to do is prepare them in reading, writing, math, science and language,” Bello said.
The program prepares veterans for college entrance exams if they are entering as freshmen or, if they are transfer students, it will refresh their soft skills. In many cases, however, college preparedness is only one part of the support provided. “A lot of (the veterans) are unemployed,” she said. “Most that I have seen here are couch-surfing – not so much homeless but couch-surfing, I would say – and many don't know how to handle money. They get all this ‘Post-9/11’ money and they don't know how to handle it, and a lot of them go into debt.”
In order to thrive as students, Bello said, it is critical for veterans to address any other issues they may have, such as mental health concerns or financial troubles. All service members receive transitional assistance when they leave the military, but in many cases, Bello believes, that support needs to continue as veterans regain their bearings in civilian life. “They give them all this information at once, and I don’t think most people are thinking about all those things at that moment,” she said. “My program is here not only to prepare them for postsecondary education, but also to help them with that transitioning, whatever services they need.”
Veteran Peer Coordinator, New York City Department of Veterans’ Services
Years served: 2005-2008
Highest rank earned: Specialist
As a combat medic in Afghanistan, Michael Drake served on the front lines with his infantry team. He gave medical instruction to active soldiers, taught preventative medicine in Afghani villages, conducted humanitarian aid operations and was awarded an Army Commendation Medal with Valor for performing duties under fire.
In joining the military, Drake was following in the footsteps of his father and stepfather. Upon leaving the service, however, he would take advantage of the G.I. Bill and become the first member of his family to attend college.
Drake enlisted in the Army just a couple months after graduating from high school. At the time, he envisioned a career in the medical field when his service came to an end, but in college Drake discovered a new passion: advocacy. He became the president of his community college’s veterans group. At the University of California, Berkeley, where he later enrolled, Drake became president of the veterans group there, and led the effort to create a veterans resource center on campus.
He began his advocacy career in the nonprofit sector, but eventually moved into government, joining the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs to help homeless veterans in the city’s shelter system navigate the complex landscape of housing vouchers and subsidies, applications, interviews and background checks to secure suitable and affordable housing. “When a lot of people transition back, it’s hard to find a job right away. New York City is an expensive place, so people can find themselves entering the shelter system pretty quickly,” Drake said. “We are basically housing brokers for homeless veterans. We help walk them through the entire process, either with a Section 8 voucher, or housing subsidy, or we help them get an apartment that they can afford with their own income.”
Veterans suffering a mental health emergency or substance abuse issue may need help finding supportive housing. In other cases, Drake and his team will advocate for a client before a broker or client. “As veterans, we understand the transition, we understand how difficult it can be, which allows us to really empathize with our clients' stories, and we use that to advocate personally to brokers and landlords,” Drake explained. “So for clients who may otherwise be rejected from an apartment based on their credit or another mitigating factor, we can speak to the landlord about our experience with the client.”
Case management is challenging work, but the rewards, for Drake, are well worth the effort – not least when a client finally receives the keys to their new home. “It’s always a little bit of an emotional event for clients who have been waiting months, even years possibly,” Drake said. “It’s the first piece of stability that they are going to have on their road to recovery.”
Bureau Chief, Tenant Protection Unit, New York state Homes and Community Renewal
Years Served: 1974-2013
Branch: Navy, Army, Air Force
Highest rank earned: Colonel
In 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new law enforcement office, under the auspices of the New York State Department of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), aimed at protecting the more than 1 million rent-regulated tenants in New York City from overcharges, fraud and harassment. To help lead the newly inaugurated Tenant Protection Unit, HCR tapped Gregory Fewer, a lawyer who had not only worked within the department for many years, but also served distinguished stints as a military prosecutor, along with other national security assignments.
Fewer first enlisted in the U.S. Army as a 17-year-old in 1974. After a two-year stint in Germany, he returned stateside to attend St. Francis College, in his native Brooklyn, on the G.I. Bill. Fewer would remain in the military throughout college as a tech sergeant with an Air Force Reserve medevac unit based on Governors Island.
After graduating from law school, Fewer received a commission as a lieutenant in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He began his career as a defense counsel, but eventually transitioned to prosecutor and, following a string of successful prosecutions on a major drug case, Fewer was named staff judge advocate at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts.
When he left the Navy to join the New York State Department of Homes and Community Renewal, Fewer once again choose to remain in the service as a JAG officer of the New York Army National Guard. In 1998, he transferred to the Army Reserve’s 4th Legal Support Organization in the Bronx and served as operations officer and deputy commander. Fewer would later hold the position of acting staff judge advocate for the 77th Regional Readiness Command Legal Unit at Fort Totten.
From 2004 to 2006 Fewer was mobilized to Washington, D.C., where he served on the JAG Desk of the Crisis Action Team in the Pentagon’s Army Operation Center. He would return to Washington in 2009 to work on a special project out of the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
In 2012, Fewer returned to New York, bringing his military and national security legal expertise to his new role as the Tenant Protection Unit’s bureau chief. Drawing upon his organizational training, Fewer helped build up the unit and implement a systematic restructuring of how the state enforced compliance with its rent regulations.
“Real estate (in New York) has gone through the roof,” Fewer said, “and greed can make people do bad things.”
In April of this year, Cuomo announced that the Tenant Protection Unit’s efforts had led to the restoration of 50,000 apartments to rent regulation as well as the repayment of more than $2.5 million to tenants who had been wrongfully overcharged. The following month, the New York State Attorney General’s office announced the high-profile arrest of Steven Croman – for years a fixture on the city’s “worst landlords” list – on 20 felony charges, acknowledging the Tenant Protection Unit’s contribution to the investigation.
“We’ve had a significant degree of success,” Fewer said.
Senior Director, BNY Mellon Private Wealth Management
Years served: 1978-1984
Branch: U.S. Marines
Highest rank earned: Staff Sergeant
The American workforce is currently experiencing one of the largest influxes of returning veterans in the country’s history. And while veterans often bring a specialized range of skills to the workplace, many face unique transitional challenges as well, and struggle to figure out how their military experience translates into the civilian world.
“The unmistakable characteristic that all of them have is a sense of commitment, a sense of duty and loyalty that you just don’t get from someone fresh out of college. They are just so much more mature,” said John Mathena, a wealth director at BNY Mellon and co-chairman of its Veterans Network (VetNet), an employee resource group.
Yet despite their obvious talents, some returning veterans feel out of touch. Many are uncertain how to articulate the value of their military experience to the corporate world. “Their buddies went to college and then went right into corporate America, so they are much further along,” Mathena said. “It’s a matter of reminding (veterans) that you took this route because it was a very valuable experience.”
From his own experience, Mathena knows the advantage that the skills and values acquired in the Marines can provide. He enlisted in the reserves as a teenager, and wound up serving as a business administration specialist at Camp Pendleton in California. The fact that his years in the reserves coincided with a period of limited foreign conflict, and that he was never called into active duty, makes Mathena all the more grateful toward those who had to endure real sacrifice.
“I’m the first to tell everyone that the reason that I am so involved with veterans’ causes now is because I had such an easy time with my service,” Mathena said.
Even without deploying overseas, Mathena credits the Marines with fostering many attributes that allowed him to excel in the corporate world. “I was taught ruthless organizational skills,” Mathena said. “I was taught how to work in teams with people of varied backgrounds. I was taught how to respect the individuals around me, and I think those three characteristics have done more for my civilian career than anything learned in business school, to be really honest.”
BNY Mellon’s VetNet supports military veterans in their transition to the corporate world through recruiting efforts and mentorship programs. The group has partnered with the United War Veterans Council, the Soldier for Life program and the Marine Executive Association, among other programs.
“I get to go to work and put on a Marines pin and yet I didn’t have to do any of the things that these men and women who are there right now have to do,” Mathena said. “So it’s rewarding any time one of them gets placed in a job. It’s rewarding when I meet them a year or two later and find out that they’re doing well, when they tell me about their families and what’s going on in their lives.”
Managing Director, Drexel Hamilton Capital Markets
Years served: 2001-2009
Highest rank: Captain
The road home from war, and integration into the civilian workforce, is no walk in the park. John Martinko made it with a little help from fellow veterans.
“The community of veterans really was behind me, helping me get a seat on Wall Street, and that is something that I will never forget,” said Martinko, who first joined the Army in 2001.
Though originally recruited to West Point as a swimmer, Martinko was following in the footsteps of family members from previous generations. He would deploy seven times to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – including during the initial strikes into Iraq – and receive three Bronze Stars for his valor.
Martinko began his Wall Street career with Credit Suisse, and later joined the veteran-owned Drexel Hamilton Capital Markets. Nearly half of the firm’s staff members are veterans, and more than 20 percent of those have a disability. “I thought coming here would be a good way for me to remain involved in the financial industry, but also give back to other veterans in a more significant way,” Martinko said.
One thing that Wall Street and the military have in common is a predilection for acronyms. Still, entering the financial industry can be like learning a new language, and Drexel Hamilton makes a point of pairing each newly arrived military veteran with an established Wall Street veteran to ease their transition. “You basically have like a left feet, right feet ride,” Martinko said. “It’s like one of those situations where the veteran is being trained by both his left and right flank as they go through the day.”
Once that transition is complete, Martinko believes that the sort of skills that veterans obtain in the military serve them well in the fast-paced financial services industry. “Service members in general make great employees because of their integrity, persistence, and also, I think, their cohesiveness working together in a unit,” Martinko said. “A lot of the problem sets that we had overseas were extremely difficult, and the stakes high, and I think having that kind of experience, especially in the financial industry, kind of keeps a calmness about any banking activities that you have to work through day-to-day.”
Drexel Hamilton’s efforts on behalf of the veteran community are not limited to the culture and practices maintained within the office itself. “We’re working both up and down,” Martinko said. “We’re working directly with veterans, but we’re also working with other hiring managers to help them find candidates who are a natural fit for the investment banking and financial industry.”
The firm partners with bulge-bracket banks, private equity firms and other industry players to maintain active dialogue around best practices with respect to veteran hiring and integration, and strengths and weakness of particular veteran programs. The firm has even advocated before regulatory bodies for changes that would facilitate the integration of disabled veterans into the financial industry.
“Every day for us is Veterans Day,” Martinko said.
Chairman, United War Veterans Council
Years served: 2000-2004
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Highest rank: Captain
The New York City Veterans Day Parade, the largest celebration of its kind in the country, traces its roots to the Spanish-American War, and, even further back, to traditions carried out by veterans of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War. Following a period of steady decline, the parade, along with the United War Veterans Council (UWVC), the nonprofit responsible for its production, was revived in 1985 by a group of Vietnam veterans.
In January, Doug McGowan, a former Marine captain and veteran of the second Iraq War, was elected chairman of the UWVC, with the goal of keeping alive tradition while pushing forward with new ambitions. Under McGowan’s leadership, the organization is looking to amp up its veteran advocacy and support efforts while continuing to find new ways to honor their service.“The mission is to mobilize our communities to honor, support and serve American veterans,” McGowan said. “We do that by raising positive awareness and increased understanding of veterans’ needs, and we attempt to unify our veteran groups, community organizations, city, state and federal agencies, and the general public to serve veterans of all eras. We do that through advocacy, support and sustainability.”
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, McGowan was training to be a Marine. The Upper West Side native had received his commission the previous year after graduating from Tufts University. In the coming years he would deploy to the Pacific and the Middle East before leaving the uniformed service in 2004 to earn a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Between 2007 and 2011 McGowan would deploy to the Middle East and North Africa several more times as a civilian working for the U.S. Defense Department and as a government contractor in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as on anti-terrorism assignments. He currently works as a risk and control officer in the Markets Division at Barclays Investment Bank.
The UWVC is planning to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in this year’s Veteran’s Day Parade (“America’s Parade,” officially), which is fitting given that the organization has recently passed on the bulk of its leadership responsibilities to post-9/11 veterans. The fact that less than one half of one percent of Americans have served in the armed conflicts of the past decade and a half, McGowan believes, will ultimately afford his generation of veterans a unique position from which to lead.
“My generation understands what it means to serve, and we continue to serve because we know that it is only through service to our community that we are going to actually achieve the objectives that we look to achieve together,” McGowan said.
“It’s up to us to take the work that has already been done and capitalize on it,” he said.
Luis W. Osorio
Director of Resident and Community Engagement, New York City Department of Youth and Community Development
Years served: 1964-1968
Branch: Air Force
Highest rank earned: Sergeant
Before he enlisted in the Air Force, Luis W. Osorio’s hardscrabble upbringing had begun to catch up with him. The son of a single mother, Osorio grew up in a South Bronx housing project and found himself gravitating toward the street. Joining the military not only helped Osorio get his own life in order, it gave him a deeper appreciation for the value of all human life.
“I observed young men from different groups – different classes and races – and everyone of them demonstrated a set of values while under fire, and expressed their commitment and devotion to the United States,” he said.
For his service in Vietnam, Osorio would receive two presidential citations. And it was during those two deployments that he pledged to make a positive impact on the lives of others. In his decades of public service, Osorio has worn many hats in city and state government, and many of the qualities that he brings to each new endeavor date back to his time in the military. “I am very disciplined,” Osorio said, “I believe in protocol, and I value the humanity of everybody.”
Osorio began his career as a public school teacher, but quickly rose through the ranks of city government. Mayor Ed Koch named him the first executive director of the juvenile justice system, and he would later serve as the Brooklyn director of Child Protective Services. Mayor Michael Bloomberg would appoint Osorio director of the Cornerstone Initiative, which encompasses 94 community centers in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments around the city. The community centers offer programming for both youth and adults in education, technology, sports and other areas.
At that time, Osorio would also take responsibility for resident engagement as well, which entails daily interfacing with NYCHA resident associations. While Osorio admits that his work involves some conflict resolution and mediation, he says that “the bottom line is listening to people – listening very well.”
Osorio likens public housing developments to “miniature cities,” each with a culture of its own. And in his experience, there can be no better preparation for understanding the needs of their residents than having been one.
“I know what it is to be poor. I know what it is to see your mother struggling to provide her children with a clean and healthy environment. I know what it is to be involved in gangs to protect your siblings,” Osorio said. “I don’t forget my basics.”
Director of Executive Operations, New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli
Years served: 2013-present
Branch: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
Highest rank: Assistant District Publications Officer
Yolanda Robinson grew up in the inland city of White Plains. By her own admission, the only thing she knew about boats was how to ride in one.
“I was a land-lover,” she said. “The closest I got to a boat was the Circle Line.”
That landlocked upbringing, however, did not deter Robinson from volunteering for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary once her children had gone off to college. What she lacked in boating knowledge she made up for in her commitment to public service and volunteerism.
“I’ve always thought volunteerism leads to more wonderful things,” she said. “One of the things I teach my children is you may not be paid for every great job that you have,” said Robinson, who is now certified for boat crew in Flotilla 6-4 out of Verplanck.
As an auxiliarist, Robinson patrols the Hudson River, alongside members of her flotilla, with the principal purpose of promoting boat safety. But the Coast Guard Auxiliary also participates in search and rescue operations, conducts aerial patrols and provides relief during public emergencies, such as a natural disasters or oil spills.
With major construction underway on the Tappan Zee Bridge, Robinson’s flotilla has stepped up to provide additional “eyes and ears on the water in order to promote safety.”
Robinson serves as the public affairs officer for her flotilla, as well as assistant publications officer for the First Southern District, which encompasses much of the northeastern seaboard. To carry out those duties Robinson draws upon her extensive experience in both government and the media, which included stints in television as a news reporter and anchor for News 12 Westchester, as well as a radio talk show host at WJAZ-FM, WFAS-AM/FM and WBLS/WLIB. Robinson has also served as a spokeswoman for former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, with whom she worked to create a weekend school in Southwest Yonkers that provided children and adults with a spectrum of educational opportunities. She would go on to work in the administration of Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young and currently serves as director of executive operations for New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
As an auxiliarist, Robinson has learned skills such as radio transmission and how to use speed and distance to calculate when her boat will arrive at a given destination. But one thing is certain: Robinson is thrilled with where she is right now.
“I look at it as a learning opportunity,” she said. “The Coast Guard Auxiliary provides me with a constant education and training in order to carry out our duties. More importantly, I love serving my country.”
Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Veterans’ Services
Years served: 1999-present
Branch: Army (National Guard)
Highest rank: Major
Military service was always highly valued in Jeffrey Roth’s family. His father and grandfathers all served, as did his brother, whose tragic death at the U.S. Army Airborne School brought home to Roth, under the worst circumstances, how powerful the bond could be between those who serve.
“This was a group of people that was like a family, and they really took care of us,” recalled Roth, who was 17 at the time.
As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, Roth joined the ROTC. Once again, the connection to a community inspired him, and Roth has served in the National Guard since 1999.
It was always about more than just community, though. In high school and college, Roth participated in humanitarian work around the world, experiences that enabled him to see the ways in which policy could have a direct impact on people’s lives. After studying public policy and urban planning in graduate school, Roth entered city government as a policy analyst at the Mayor’s Office of Operations, and from there moved to the New York City Fire Department, where he would earn recognition for his work on a computer algorithm that enabled the FDNY to prioritize which of the city’s nearly 1 million buildings to inspect.
Based on his own experience, Roth believes that military training can come in handy when solving government problems. “It teaches you how to perform in complex, ambiguous, volatile, intense environments. In the military, you are put in situations that are really difficult and you have to problem-solve and be creative in how you come up with a solution or way out,” Roth said. “And I have found that in the public sector you are often given big problems with no ready-made solution, and not a lot of resources, so you also have to rely on that same creative problem-solving.”
Earlier this year, Roth was named deputy commissioner of the newly inaugurated Department of Veteran’s Services, which succeeded the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs. For Roth, his position in the new agency uniquely aligns his military and government experience while presenting the intriguing challenge of “a start-up in city government.”
Once the department is running at full steam, it will focus on three primary “lines of action”: tackling problems around housing and homelessness, providing integrated health care, and promoting employment, education and entrepreneurship.
In other words: “How do we make New York City a place where veterans want to come and build their businesses and grow their families?” Roth explained.
Beyond ensuring that veterans know which government benefits and support services are available to them, Roth believes the new agency must tap into the desire among so many of them to “continue to serve” and “be a part of something.”
“It’s going to be paramount for this agency to find ways to leverage that desire among our veteran community and find ways to help them thrive and flourish and continue to serve,” Roth said.
USS Intrepid, Board Member
Years served: 1959-1964
Branch: U.S. Navy
Highest rank earned: Leading Seaman of the First Division of the USS Intrepid
John Sollazzo grew up with a natural affinity for boats and open water. Something about the U.S. Navy always inspired the Staten Islander, and when he was old enough to enlist, Sollazzo would receive the sort of commission dreams are made of: to serve aboard one of the country’s iconic battleships. The USS Intrepid, now decommissioned off the West Side of Manhattan, is a familiar sight to many New Yorkers, who know it as an air and space museum; but Sollazzo recalls with enduring fondness life aboard the ship during its seafaring days.
“When you were on the Intrepid, it was like you were in a floating city,” Sollazzo said. “I mean, it had everything, and you were in a community when you were on board. I knew everybody on that ship – that’s the type of person I am.”
Sollazzo credits those years serving as a leading seaman aboard the Intrepid with setting his life on a positive course as a family man and an engaged member of his community. “On a ship you’re in closed quarters, and there’s camaraderie, the love for each other, this togetherness,” he recalled.
Though Sollazzo would leave the Navy to marry his lifelong sweetheart, his experience aboard the aircraft carrier turned out to be ideal preparation for a career in the New York City Fire Department. Not only was it critical that he know how to put out a fire in close quarters, but living aboard a battleship prepared him for the task of facing peril, of living and working alongside those with whom he served.
“When you are fighting a fire, you only think about protecting the building, and getting anybody inside out of the building,” Sollazzo said. “You don’t think about yourself. You think about your brother firefighter who is next to you. There is no other job like being in the fire department, the brotherly love that we had for each other.”
Since his retirement from the FDNY, Sollazzo has remained engaged on issues concerning firefighters, serving as the national president of the United Retired Firefighters Association, as well as its Staten Island chapter. For the past half-century he’s been a fixture in the island’s local politics. Dubbed “Mr. Democrat” by some, Sollazzo has run, by his own count, some 25 to 30 political campaigns, and is currently vice chairman of the Staten Island Democratic Party. He also serves as a community mayor, a position he uses to ensure that Staten Islanders with disabilities have access to supports they need, as well as recreational activities.
“They call Staten Island the forgotten borough, but it’s so rich in the quality of people,” said Sollazzo, noting that he’s seen the island’s population more than double over the course of his life.
“I have seen the change, and I have accepted the change,” he said. “And I choose not to go away from what’s here.”