For Michael DiSilvio, a dose of patriotism and community support could not have arrived at a better time.
Last Thursday, ahead of Veterans Day, Mattituck High School held its seventh annual Wall of Honor dedication ceremony. Each year, the school adds new plaques to the wall honoring alumni who served in the armed forces. Mr. DiSilvio, who graduated in 1995, was among of the veterans and active service members who were recognized this year, representing the MHS classes of 1956 through 2023.
“Today, we added 15 new members to the wall of honor, bringing our inductees up to a total of 159,” Mattituck-Cutchogue School District Superintendent Shawn Petretti told the crowd gathered in the high school’s library Thursday morning. “Seven years ago, at our first ceremony, we honored 40 inductees. That’s an impressive number for a community of our size. It speaks to the importance of military service to this community … As I looked over the plaques on the wall last night, it amazes me every year the amount of history that jumps out.”
For the past four months, Mr. DiSilvio, his wife, Kathleen Stewart, and their children, Raylan, 12, and Isla, 10, have been longing to reunite with their beloved black Lab, Gigi, who went missing from their Mattituck home on July 15. Mr. DiSilvio, a combat veteran, said Gigi opened him up this past year in ways he hadn’t experienced since his time overseas.
“Since Gigi went missing, it’s made me appreciate what I did, where for 10 years I haven’t,” he said. “The news and everything makes you really wonder: When you went over there, did you do the right thing? Did you do what you were supposed to? For 10 years, it was up and down and then Gigi came into my life, and that little dog changed my whole life, and now she’s missing, now I look at everything differently … I guess just good things come out of bad things.”
Things have been tough for Mr. DiSilvio, but his community and even distant online do-gooders have supported him and his family any way they could, from translating, laminating and hanging signs with Gigi’s photo all around town to blasting updates and missing dog alerts to thousands of social media users. Last week’s Veterans Day honor was the latest boost to Mr. DiSilvio’s morale. Surrounded by fellow veterans, the affair also offered the Mattituck native a moment to appreciate his service and those of his fellow honorees, an appreciation Gigi lit inside him.
“I appreciate what I did, especially [today] being around all these other veterans and all these older guys,” Mr. DiSilvio said.
Among the Vietnam veterans whose pictures now hang permanently and proudly on the Wall of Honor is a very special addition for Mattituck High School. For the first time since it began adding heroes to the wall, the school welcomed a faculty member who served the school but did not graduate from it: John Jack Gibbons, a Cutchogue resident who worked in Mattituck from 1974 to 2005 as a social studies teacher and track coach.
“Jack served the United States Navy,” Mr. Petretti said. “His first assignment was operations officer aboard the USS Phoebe, a coastal minesweeper that boarded Japan. Jack served a 13-month tour in Vietnam and was awarded a Navy commendation ribbon for superior performance of duties during combat operations. We are proud to welcome you as our first faculty honoree, and I know there’s quite a few alumni and faculty members that are here in attendance today to support Jack, as well as his daughter, Theron. Welcome aboard, Jack, and welcome back.”
Mr. Gibbons was nominated for the recognition by Brian Janis, who was also added to the wall this year, and Michael Sanchez, one of the inaugural honorees.
“I don’t know which is more meaningful to me, being placed on the wall or being nominated by a couple of my former student athletes,” Mr. Gibbons said after seeing his plaque on the wall. “It’s really meaningful to me to be remembered by guys that I care so much about.”
For Mr. DiSilvio, the event offered a moment of self-reflection. As a young man, no one would have pinned him as the kind to selflessly serve his nation. Admittedly a class clown, he cut class and listened to hardcore underground punk music courtesy of bands like the Bad Brains, whose first album cover depicts a lightning bolt striking the nation’s capital.
“They didn’t want me,” Mr. DiSilvio said jokingly, referring to the school during his time as a student. “Now they’re welcoming me back.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that he felt a desire to serve. As he watched the news of American soldiers fighting and dying overseas, he said his father, a Vietnam veteran, told him, “You wouldn’t understand.” He decided to learn firsthand overseas. He served with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, N.Y. While he wanted to finish out the terms of his enlistment — so much so that he even reenlisted while still stationed in Afghanistan — he was honorably discharged due to injuries he sustained.
On Friday, his mother-in-law surprised him and the family for lunch since his kids were off for Veterans Day. Afterward, he introduced a Suffolk Times reporter to another new bright spot in his life: Simba, a friendly, calm and alert 6-year-old white Lab that he and his wife adopted from a woman who was about to give birth and was searching via Facebook for a good home for her pup. Ever patrolling the internet for signs of Gigi and other lost dogs, Mr. DiSilvio saw her post and headed west to meet Simba. Within seconds, he knew he would take Simba home, not as a new service dog — and certainly not to replace Gigi, who he still believes in his heart is out there somewhere — but as a new furry companion. After all, Labs have been integral to his and his wife’s lives, both separately and as a couple. In fact, Ms. Stewart said she wouldn’t give Mr. DiSilvio her phone number until he placed Stinker, the Lab he had at the time, in her lap.
“I come across hundreds of posts a day, and this one really hit me,” Mr. DiSilvio said, referring to the post by Simba’s former owner. “A couple of people offered us puppies; there are some great people out there … we were just not ready to bring a puppy into our life. There was something about Simba’s picture.
“We took a ride, the dog was looking at me barking,” he continued. “I got on my hands and knees, then Simba came up to me. I said, ‘We’ll take her.’ ”
The Mattituck High School Wall of Honor is “an ongoing project,” Mr. Petretti said. “I know that we have other veterans that are alumni, or former and current faculty members, in our community that have not yet been recognized. So please share the video and encourage them to reach out to my office so that we can include them in the wall next year.”
In the distant future, Raylan DiSilvio, who wishes to follow his father’s footsteps and enlist in the Army when he grows up, may also find his name and photograph on the Wall of Honor.
“He’s always said that from day one,” Ms. Stewart said of her son. “He was born to do it … I believe in him and I support him.”