Today, I’m reflecting on several family members who have died in the past year-and-a-half who were veterans. They include my father, who served during the Korean War, but thankfully, was stationed in France. His brother, who was in the Air Force in the mid to late 50’s. Two uncles on my mother’s side, one who fought in Europe and was in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany; the other in the Pacific, where my father in law, a past president of both the New York State American Legion and V.F.W., who passed away in the mid-90s, also served. And a brother in law, who was in the Navy on a ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and at least on one occasion, had to duck enemy fire.

All of them contributed to our country. Their service was exemplary; had it come down to it, they were all willing to die for their country. But there is one more relative who I want to mention: someone, who went above and beyond the call of duty after he had returned to civilian life.

John Natoli, a first cousin, passed away at the age of 75 on May 4th. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1964. But in a sense, his service to our country was just beginning.

Johnny, as he preferred to be called, worked in civilian life as an engineer for the V.A. Hospital in Castle Point, NY. He was one of those guys who was really handy and could “fix anything.” He used these talents to the max after his retirement.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the scandalous mistreatment, or lack of treatment, at some 26  V.A. hospitals across U.S. This may or may not be hard to believe, but as late as the 1990’s, most V.A. hospital rooms did not have something which we all take for granted: a phone by the bedside. Johnny, along with some other like-minded veterans’ advocates, changed that. Not only did every patient room have a phone, but technology was installed so patients could more efficiently and effectively communicate with hospital staff.  

For these efforts, John Natoli received a 1,000 Points of Light Foundation awards from President Clinton, and met the President at the White House.

Not too long after that, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Johnny went to Ground Zero as a first responder. What he saw and felt, I can only imagine; observing it from a distance was disturbing enough. The fact that he was willing to go and do whatever was needed at the time, well, that says it all.

While I can’t say this with 100% certainty, it may very well be that his time spent at Ground Zero contributed greatly to Johnny becoming seriously ill. In fact, he nearly died about 6 or 7 years ago after becoming stricken with what I believe was mesothelioma.  

In any event, to me, this defines the saying “a life well-lived.” Johnny was buried with military honors; he was honored during his wake by the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group, with whom he occasionally rode, though he wasn’t a member.

For his wake and funeral, it was asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Wounded Warriors Foundation. For the past several months, I’ve been training to run the Saratoga half-marathon in September. I had been thinking about running for a charity. Now, I know which one, and I’m going to dedicate my run to him.

This effort is really just at the beginning stages. In the coming weeks, I’ll let you know what you can do to help. As for Johnny, I’ll always remember his gravelly Brooklyn accent, his kindness, and his sense of humor and quick wit that made us laugh at family gatherings. The only thing other thing I can say is…Thank you for your service. We’re all better for it.

- Tom Rigatti