Michael Sulsona can reach deep into a broken war veteran’s heart and find strength, determination and hope.
But reach the top shelf in a kitchen cabinet? That’s been a challenge for the retired Marine Corps sergeant ever since the day he lost both of his legs to a land mine while serving in central Vietnam.
“At 67, I’m with the broomstick, trying to move things to the edge,’’ Sulsona says with a laugh and an expletive, mocking his stubborn attempt at independence. He shares experiences like this, and encouragement, with veterans daily in his dual roles as a Marine Corps League service officer and an ambassador for the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
The cabinet reach, and most other everyday tasks, have been tough for Sulsona ever since that fateful day in 1971. Yet, on a daily basis, he counts on those experiences to guide and assist veterans facing similar challenges.
On July 2, he’ll be on the receiving end of that particular brand of generosity when he and his wife, Frieda, are presented with a new, mortgage-free, entirely accessible smart home, courtesy of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
The two-story New Dorp home features everything from widened doorways and a roll-in shower, to an elevator and motorized stovetop and kitchen cabinet shelves that drop down to his level for easier access.
It’ll be a life-changer, he says.
“This is going to add years to my life,’’ said Sulsona, who in recent months hasn’t been able to access his second-floor bedroom in his Bulls Head townhouse because a poorly-designed chair lift and a shoulder injury have made it too difficult to board.
“I’ll be able to live more productively,’’ he said. “I’ll be able to sleep in a bed.’’
It’ll be the fourth home provided on Staten Island by the foundation, started by Frank Siller and his siblings in memory of their brother, Stephen, an off-duty New York City firefighter who was killed while responding to the World Trade Center on 9/11.
‘YOUNGER GUYS LOOK UP TO HIM’
Sulsona’s tough-as-nails persona, coupled with an intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of Veteran’s Administration (VA) red tape, are what make him a priceless addition to the foundation, said John Ponte, the senior director of its Gold Star Family Home and Smart Home Program.
“He lives in that world,’’ said Ponte. “He’s been very, very positive, and the younger guys look up to him. They call him grandpa. He’s just a wealth of knowledge.’’
Securing the services and support the VA provides involves a certain skill set, Ponte said. It’s one Sulsona has mastered through the decades. “A lot of kids say, ‘the VA doesn’t do this for me, doesn’t do that for me,’ but there’s a lot of self-initiative needed.’’
He doesn’t coddle the vets he sets out to help, Ponte said. “He barks at them. He gets them moving. And there are times when he’s screaming at the VA. It’s his determination that makes it happen.’’
Over the past few years, his volunteer efforts haven’t always been convenient — or even safe. Some of his time is spent in offices opposite members of Congress, or addressing sponsors at fundraising dinners. Yet, reaching out directly to homeless veterans is often a bit less glamorous. Desolate subway stations. Cold, dark alleys. An emergency room on Christmas Eve. He’s seen them all in his efforts to “build a bridge between vets and the VA.’’
“He gets in the car, no matter what time of day,’’ Ponte said. “I tell him he’s got to slow down a bit. When you see these cases and you listen to these people’s problems, it affects you. It brings you down, too.’’
From social worker, to claims specialist and psychologist, to just an ear, listening on the other end of the telephone line — Sulsona plays every role.
HIS DEDICATION AND A SPECIAL CHRISTMAS
He dropped everything in 2018 to head to Harlem at 2 a.m. and spent Christmas Eve in an emergency room, using diplomacy and a bit of grit to secure prescription medication for a homeless vet. Later, at a diner, he ate steak and eggs with the vet. It’s one Christmas he’ll always remember, he says.
He recalls his own return home from Vietnam, and a less-than-gracious welcome from his home community in downtown Brooklyn.
“I was asked not to vote,’’ he said. “I was told to move my car (for parking too close to someone’s driveway). My car was being keyed. These were my neighbors. I had artificial legs and I was parking blocks away.’’
Bitterness, by all accounts, has had no place in his life. “That was just the way things were,’’ Sulsona says.
Rather than waste time on anger, he took his positive outlook to college, graduating with honors from Goddard College with an MFA in creative writing, then went on to write more than 23 plays, 18 screenplays and a handful of books as an untitled (ghost) writer.
He’s grateful to Frank Siller for his example, and for allowing him to reach other veterans, he says. The rewards far outweigh anything he ever got from writing scripts, he says.
“Here, I actually touch somebody,’’ he said. “You can help them make it to the next day. When you get that one person that no one cares about, and you change his life . . . What I’ve been exposed to is priceless. You can’t buy it.’’
“Everything that I wanted to do in life, every dream that I had, the Siller Foundation has shown me that it’s possible,’’ Sulsona said. “They’ve changed my whole life by just showing me what I could do and allowing me to do it.’’
TRIBUTE TO SILLER
Siller’s passion is unmatched, Sulsona said.
“If you cut Frank loose, he’d personally take care of every single first responder,’’ Sulsona said. “And, he just about does.’’
He laughs that he made news for not being bitter with the VA, remembering a letter he wrote to the Advance five years ago when three Lowe’s employees took it upon themselves to repair his broken wheelchair in the store after he’d waited many long months for a new one.
“The story went viral because I wasn’t trashing anyone,’’ he said with a chuckle. The incident led him to his Tunnel to Towers career, he said.
Ponte spotted the article and set out to give Sulsona a wheelchair the foundation had available. When Lowe’s wouldn’t provide Sulsona’s contact information, he was briefly disheartened, only to spot Sulsona a few minutes later on the drive home.
“I just happened to glance out the window and I see this guy, rolling in a wheelchair,” Ponte recalls. “I got so excited.’’ After chatting with Sulsona for nearly an hour, and inviting him back to his home for a barbecue, he knew the Purple Heart, Bronze Star With Valor veteran could provide a great service to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation. Frank Siller was easily convinced, he recalled.
Sulsona never had a thought of getting anything for himself from the foundation, he said. His townhouse has been modified through the years and he’d gotten used to things the way they were.
Besides, the foundation’s mission was to provide services to 9/11 families and veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not Vietnam.
That changed at a Veteran’s Day event a few years back, when Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano asked Ponte, “Why aren’t we building Mike a house?’’
After about two years of battling New York City bureaucracy, that plan is coming to fruition.
Sulsona’s house, at 52 DiMarco Place, will be unveiled to him and dedicated on July 2 at 11 a.m. in a ceremony open to the public.
Sulsona says the home will change everything.
“Considering the life that we’ve lived, for this to happen to both of us, we’re still shaking our heads,’’ he said.
He’s seen a few smart homes before, but has not yet seen this one.
“You’re able to move freely,’’ he said. “You just roll into the house. There’s actually room between the couch and loveseat. In the dining room, you can sit at any place. That’s something I’ve never lived with.’’
The only downside to the new home, he says, is that he’ll soon have access to the laundry room — and his wife will expect him to pitch in with those chores.
“Thank you, Frank Siller,’’ he says, sarcastically. “Thank you for that.’’
© 2019 Staten Island Advance, N.Y.
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