By Christina Santucci
They were hurt serving their country and not even the devastation left in Superstorm Sandy’s wake could stop Rockaway residents from honoring the group of 32 soldiers during the annual three-day Wounded Warrior Project.
Organizers pulled out all the stops to find new locations to hold water sports like surfing, scuba diving, kayaking and water skiing because the Rockaway Point Yacht Club was still rebuilding from the storm that ravaged the Rockaway peninsula seven months earlier.
“[Sandy] destroyed so many parts of the community,” said Albion Giordano, one of Wounded Warrior’s founders. “We kind of went into this saying, ‘Hey, we understand if we are not going to do it this year,’ and this community was adamant. ‘No. The soldiers will come back. We will do this again.’
A few adjustments had to be made, however, to how the program was run in previous years.
In the past, soldiers stayed at the homes of Rockaway residents and developed long-term friendships with their hosts, he said. But this year participants were put up at hotels because many volunteers’ houses were destroyed or badly damaged by the storm.
And instead of Breezy Point as the site of most of the water sports, surfing and scuba diving were held on Rockaway Beach at 63rd Street with assistance from the Parks Department and the Arverne by the Sea development. Kayaking and boats to transport warriors to an area for waterskiing were launched from Riis Landing.
And this year’s festivities were also without “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini, who led the welcome parade through the Rockaways last year and died last month.
“This community has been opening up their hearts and their homes for the past to the Wounded Warrior for nine years,” Giordano said before a ceremony Saturday where he accepted a $100,000 donation from the Rockaway Legends in Valor group, which helps to organize the event.
“Since Sandy, we’ve had to move a number of different times and a number of different venues, and when you look around here, this is one of the best we’ve had in nine years,” said Legion in Valor President Flip Mullen. Later Saturday night, Mullen was slated to host a block party for the warriors at his Belle Harbor home.
Ryan Williams, 14, also handed over a check of $200, which he raised by selling bracelets made of cord that could be used in emergencies.
Giordano said Wounded Warriors began when several individuals started making backpacks for soldiers coming out of the hospital after they were injured.
“When you are wounded, they cut all your gear off,” he said. “We filled 50 backpacks with socks, and some shirts and underwear and CD players and phone cards and brought them to Walter Reid. They said, ‘That’s great. Do you have 50 more?’ And that’s literally how it started.”
The organization’s four main pillars are mental and physical health, economic empowerment and engagement with their peers and society, Giordano said. He explained that many of the activities are planned to show participants what they are still able to accomplish despite their injuries.
“To be able to get up on that board and have their kids cheering for them, their wives cheering for them, it’s even more than we could have imagined,” Mullen said.
It took a while for Marine Omar Alejandro Rendon to realize he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after returning home to Queens from serving in Afghanistan. When the 24-year-old, who was raised in Corona and now lives in Flushing, first heard about the Wounded Warrior Project, he didn’t think it would apply to him since he had not received the Purple Heart. “We just saw a lot of combat,” he said.
But organizers convinced him to attend the weekend, when he went waterskiing and tubing. Rendon praised Rockaway residents for hosting the event while many were still rebuilding after the superstorm.
“It was a bigger welcome than when I came back from overseas,” he said.
Jamel Abdul Aziz, who is originally from Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in Austin, Texas, joined the military in 2006 and is currently an active E6 staff sergeant. He was sent overseas three times, and during his last tour in Afghanistan was shot in the chest, shoulder and leg.
“And lived to talk about it,” he said.
On Saturday, he tried out surfing and scuba diving in the 20,000-galloon pool with his wife, Cassandra, and fellow soldiers. He said he was able to stand up on the board several times but his wife seemed more like a natural at surfing.
“It was sort of like physical therapy,” he joked.
Two days earlier, Abdul Aziz said he was overwhelmed by the welcome he and other warriors received as they rode from Brooklyn to Queens in fire trucks with cheering spectators lining the sidewalks and waving flags.
“I almost cried,” he said. “When you come back here, it was all worth it. When you see all of the support and your battle buddies, it was all worth it and I would do it again.”