By Dan Guarino
On Tuesday, September 5, after two years of trying, Rockaway veteran Howard Cienski was presented with service ribbons for honors he earned during the Vietnam War. Fellow veterans, American Legion members and friends gathered that hot afternoon for a surprise presentation ceremony in honor of his two Purple Hearts. The event took place on the spacious front porch of the Veteran In Command group’s headquarters at 116-16 Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
“He put his life on the line,” said fellow veteran Katherine “Kate Rizzo” Ragazzino about Cienski. “He’s a very humble man. He was surprised, he was shocked. He was happy!”
The Purple Heart is the oldest still active decoration awarded to American service members. Created and designed by George Washington in 1782, it is conferred on U.S. military personnel who have been wounded or killed in action.
Cienski earned his by being wounded not once but twice while fighting in Southeast Asia. To this day he wears a well-worn United States Army ring on his right hand and keeps his two service decorations in a worn red pouch.
An often-familiar site as he walks the area near his home on Beach 117th Street, it was chance encounter with resident Annette Lauritsch that led to the surprise ceremony.
“It was about two years ago, during Covid, when I met him when he was walking around the block here. I saw the Vietnam vet cap. I asked if he would like to sit for a minute,” she said. From there he would stop by each week, and they would chat. He related to her that, “he grew up in St. John’s Boys Home,” said Lauritsch, “back when it was not a home for wayward boys. It was more like an orphanage.”
“One day he showed me his Purple Heart medals. He keeps them with him. The ribbons are so worn he can’t wear them anymore,” she said. That was enough for Lauritsch and others to start on a two-year mission on his behalf to see that his service decorations were restored. “The universe just brought it together. I am a retired police officer. My father is a veteran. My brother is a veteran. I care about our veterans.” Cienski is “a community treasure. People don’t know.”
She began by contacting various Veterans Administration (VA) offices. Besides encountering difficulties because she was not a family member, she often felt she was being shifted from department to department and getting tangled in red tape. “That took a few months to get nowhere.” Even intervention by local elected officials did not help. “Nothing seemed to be going on,” Lauritsch said.
Then she mentioned the situation to Ragazzino, a friend from the NY Dippers Club, and a former Marine combat veteran herself. ‘Rizzo’ immediately offered to put her in touch with Jim Trainor, retired 33-year Army veteran, current Adjutant, and former Commander of Rockaway’s American Legion 272 Daniel O’Connell Post.
“The Purple Heart is what people got who were wounded in combat,” he explained. “Howie got his over in Vietnam. He got two.” Trainor clarified what they were seeking for Cienski was his service ribbons, the striped multicolored bars which denote one’s services, military campaigns, and honors, which are often worn on special occasions in place of multiple medals. “When you get a medal, you also get a ribbon. You don’t always wear your medals. You wear your ribbons. Originally they would come through the Department of Defense,” Trainor said.
Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato’s office also contacted Trainor. All were determined for Cienski to wear his honors again. In this case, he would receive two ribbons, each with a bronze star in the middle, noting him as the recipient of two Purple Hearts. Finally, Trainor was able to have the ribbons issued.
With the two-year quest over and ribbons in hand, the next step was the presentation itself. Here Sal Lopizzo, head of the Veteran In Command (VIC) group, stepped in and offered their Rockaway Park headquarters for the occasion. VIC works to provide housing for homeless vets as well as other support services to help them reintegrate into society. They also run a large food pantry operation every week.
“The event was for Howie,” Lopizzo remarked. “It was all about Howie. He is an interesting Rockaway fellow. Raised here his whole life.”
All involved went to great lengths to keep the event a surprise, telling Cienski he was invited to a luncheon thrown for local veterans. “They invited vets from the food pantry (and elsewhere),” Lauritsch said. “He had no idea. Nobody spilled the beans.” According to those who attended, including representatives from City Councilwoman Joann Ariola’s office, Belle Harbor Property Owners President Paul King, and American Legion Post Commander Mike Honan, Cienski was quite surprised the party was for him.
Trainor explained the next step is to get replacements for the actual worn ribbons and bars attached to Cienski’s two Purple Heart medals, so that he may wear and fully display those as well.
Whether worn as a service ribbon or medal, Ragazzino commented, “They come with valor. No one wants to receive a Purple Heart. But it is an honor.
There are so many things that people don’t see. When people are selfless in valor, that’s when it’s good for people to be seen. It’s not always what you wear on your chest, it is the pride, the valor and dignity and what you believe in. He put his life on the line.”
Both Trainor and Lopizzo agree there is much that our returning veterans need, from housing to counseling and support. Vets of all ages are invited to reach out to Trainor and the Legion at 718-474-2108 (“If you don’t get a person. Leave a message and we will contact you.”) and Lopizzo/VIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
But in the meantime, all concerned were honored to help give one veteran his due and properly salute Rockaway’s own Howard Cienski.
Photos courtesy of Annete Lauritsch.