A Day in the Life: Veteran Kevin McNeil

Photo of Kevin McNeil
He’s What?!?

A nervously impressed titter made its way to the back of the gallery the afternoon of the reception for the “Long Island Landscapes” exhibition at The Firefly.

“What’s happening?”

“This disabled guy is headed upstairs!”


A wide-eyed answer, “Yeah! He handed off his walker and just started up!”

“Should we stop him?”

“He’s already ¾ of the way…I don’t think we could’ve anyway!”

The Firefly Artists inhabits a centuries-old building on Main Street in Northport. Over the pandemic we were fortunate enough to acquire additional space up a steep flight of stairs, enabling a 2nd Floor “Darcy Arts Center” of special exhibitions, classes and events. While we long to make it handicapped accessible we don’t own the space, the project will be expensive, and we haven’t figured out how to do it yet. 

That wasn’t about to hold up Kevin McNeil.  His friend, Deborah Poretto was in the show and he was going to be there to see it.


We <3 Deborah & Lisa

I, too, appreciate Deborah. I was delighted to see her apply, be accepted and actually be the person I thought that name attached to. I knew of her from Brett’s Bicycle Recycle, an organization she and her spouse, Lisa Karrer founded in 2017 to carry on the spirit of Lisa’s brother, Brett, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident. After years of giving countless hours to receiving, refurbishing and finding needing homes for well over 500 old and unwanted bicycles, they had recently wound the effort down. It was a nice opportunity to thank them both and offer words insufficient to honor their loss and appreciate their endeavor to transform their grief into something worthy of that dear soul.

I hadn’t even realized Deborah was an artist, much less that she had been working on a project the night Brett passed and hadn’t created since; that the Firefly was where she’d chosen to take that leap and submit the first painting she had finally brought herself to create – a sweet north shore waterfront scene entitled “A Place for Reflection.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Kevin said when I went up to see who had caused such a stir, “This is a big day for Deborah. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Kevin said when I went up to see who had caused such a stir, “This is a big day for Deborah. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

Meet Kevin

Kevin’s a big Irish guy with an open face who looks like he could be a bouncer if not for the walker. Quickly realizing he was a veteran, I thanked him for his service and asked if he minded sharing where that had been. He explained that he served in the army for 8 years during the 80’s as a paratrooper in places like Grenada and Kosovo. More recently, he’d spent 12 working for the Veterans Administration until the impact of all those jumps began to catch up with him and he went from working at the VA to being a regular patient. He told me he wished they would start taking volunteers again because he really appreciates all they do for him and wants to keep paying it forward…that there are so many things he is losing the ability to do, but that he always finds ways to be helpful.

Conversation quickly turned to other places he volunteers and how we should get lunch together soon to talk about it. Today was Deborah’s day, though, and if I’d kindly excuse him he’d like to focus on her.

“Oh, of course!”

So we enjoyed the reception and did our best to make sure he made it safely back down again, which he did. I hoped I hadn’t been too intrusive. Apparently not. He called soon after to arrange the date.


A Healthy Harvest

We meet in an Applebee’s that Kevin suggested. Lisa and Deborah are there at the bar, grabbing a bite. I say hello then leave them to their meal and join Kevin in a booth. He insists on buying lunch.

“The tagline for this place is something about it being like a neighborhood,” he says, “It really is. These folks are like family to me.”

The first thing he wants to talk about is Island Harvest (https://www.islandharvest.org/ ), one of Long Island’s major food banks. He volunteers there most days helping to pack the 600-700 boxes of meals per day that they distribute to the elderly and others who can really use a hand.

He explains how there are 10 skids. That there are 38 boxes per skid and that in each box is one week of meals. There’s mac and cheese, peanut butter, juice and cereal…everything needed for a complete diet.

“I got to deliver to veterans last week,” he says, “It was awesome. Like I said, we give them a week’s worth of meals in these boxes. It’s amazing what they find for these guys. We even had a few steaks thrown in. This guy was so grateful…I was so grateful to be able to give it to him…”

He notes the “Healthy Harvest” program that (https://www.islandharvest.org/healthy-harvest/ ) Island Harvest runs, an intricate effort centered on two acres of land at the Sisters of St. Joseph’s in Brentwood (https://brentwoodcsj.org/) where volunteers, school children and farmers engage in learning and producing tons of fresh produce for the more than 300,000 Long Islanders impacted by poverty.

“They give people fresh vegetables, cases of apple juice… It’s great,” he says.


Thank God for the VA

What’s not so great is his health. “It’s okay, but it’s hard,” he says, “Basically, I’m happy and content with a side of devastating depression.”

He indicates a bruise on his face, which now registers aggravation, “I wasn’t drinking or anything,” he says, “I just went down.

“Now they’re sizing me up for an electric wheelchair.”

“I’ve been retired for three years now,” he says. “I used to handle disposal of all the biohazard material. It required special training. Unfortunately, it got to where I was in the ER more than I was at work. I realized it wasn’t fair to anyone.”

He suffers severe neuropathy from the knees down. “Now it’s in my hands, too. I used to play the guitar. I can’t do it anymore. I’m okay financially. The VA takes good care of me, but it’s frustrating.”

“I just redid my whole kitchen,” he explains, “It looks great, but it’s also depressing because I couldn’t do it myself. I can’t hang a curtain rail.”

He has diabetes, too, which doesn’t help, “But I can do something about that and I’ve got it pretty well under control now,” he says, “The neuropathy, though, I don’t think that’s reversible.

“I have several orthopedic issues. LOTS of meds.”

He shows me a picture of the end table full of medications he takes.  It’s impressive.

“I have herniated disks. Degenerated discs. Spinal stenosis…” The loss of feeling is so bad that he once soaked his feet in bleach working on a job and didn’t realize it until he took his shoes off that night and found them deeply chemically burned. It wasn’t a fun thing to recover from…or to realize could happen.

The hardest thing to handle, really, is the temptation to fall into depression

“It’s hard to accept the fact that I can’t handle a curtain rod. There are all these things I used to do. Now, I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.

He goes to Occupational Therapy two times a week. Physical Therapy two times per week. Fortunately, he loves the VA, ”I’ve been dealing with all of this for five years now. I can’t hold a pen or a fork or button my own shirt….but the things they have now to help me are great!    

“I play adaptive sports … simulated golf. I spend a lot of time in the weight room.”

“Does it help to keep the neuropathy at bay?” I ask.

“It makes me feel better.”


“It’s hard to accept the fact that I can’t handle a curtain rod. There are all these things I used to do. Now, I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.”

Thank You for Your Service

He tells me again how it all stems from his time as a paratrooper for the US Army from 1982-1988 and how he served in Grenada and then the Kosovo area.

“That was a horrible time.” He grimaces.

“I did winter war games in Alaska, and summer training in Egypt. I did jungle ops in Panama. I spent the last two years in Korea.

“’Be All That You Can Be,’ they said. Me, I tried to take it to the next level. Still, I got out alive with an Honorary Discharge.

He did about 64 registered jumps, and probably well over 100 unofficially, “We were jumping off stuff every weekend,” he smiles. By the time he left he was an E5 Sargent.

“When I was a kid I could just bounce back. They bounced me off a building once and I just got up and shook it off. Now it’s all come back to bite me in the ass.

“I was going to make a career out of the service, but then both my parents passed away when I was at a very early age. Like I said, I was honorably discharged, but after all that, when I went to try and get back in, I failed my drug test.”

He looks at me point blank.

“I’ve made mistakes,” he says, “but I don’t regret anything. I’ve been a good guy.”

“Well…one thing….I wish I’d married and had kids. I’m terrified of being one of those old guys that dies alone. I wish I’d thought of that a little earlier. I was always too busy running to the next thing. Never stopped to do that. A friend, the other day, told me I’d have made a good husband and father. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.”

His face does a pretty good job of it.


After the Army

We talk a few minutes about the friends he scaled the stairs for, “I love Debbie and I love art. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

I ask if he’s known them long. “We met about two years ago here in Applebee’s. It’s like Cheers in this place,” he says, referring to the old sitcom. “I guess that makes me Norm.” He grins. “We’re like family here.”

“I went to their wedding,” he tells me, the smile getting wider, “It was awesome. I got to give them the best present ever: a 12-string acoustic guitar signed by all the members of Heart. It’s their favorite band. I miss it, but I know it’s in good hands and am really glad I was able to give it.”

Kevin came across that particular treasure when he worked as a roadie for three years after he left the service. He traveled with bands like ZZ Topp, George Thorogood, Santana, and Heart.

“Working as a roadie was a lot of fun, but takes time off your life,” he shakes his head, “I did a LOT of cocaine. Then, one day I’d had enough and just stopped. I still drink though…I’m Irish so it’s part of the job description. They used to have a case of Heineken next to the stage at every show just for us.”

He’s not drinking this month, though. He figures it’s good to take a break from time to time.

His thoughts turn back to his fellow veterans. “I feel bad for these kids coming out of Afghanistan….and with the way things are going, I hate to say it but I’m afraid we’re going to have to go back in really soon. These kids are all fucked up. I messed around a lot, but never like these guys. The heroin…and that Fentanyl shit they cut it with…it’s terrible…”

He was also a guitar technician. He played in a few bands himself but it was never anything serious.

“That was all for fun….hanging out in people’s garages and making good noise.” 

“I can’t play the guitar anymore, though,” he says, waxing wistful, “All I can do is collect them. I have a pretty cool collection.” He lights up again, pausing to show me an image on his phone,

He tells me he hasn’t given up on the music. He hasn’t quite gotten to doing it yet, “But I haven’t really given up. I’m going to try to play again.”

He looks determined.


Photo of Deborah Poretto with "A Place for Reflection"
Photo of the friend Kevin scaled the stairs for, Deborah Poretto, with her painting entitled "A Place for Reflection."

We talk a few minutes about the friends he scaled the stairs for, “I love Debbie and I love art. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.”

Just Another Day at the Local Applebee’s

We talk a little bit about “Brett’s Bicycle Recycle” the organization Lisa and Debbie ran for four years; about how working to do something good doesn’t exactly do anything to make up for the terrible things but that it at least transforms their terrible impact into something positive.

His face turns earnest, “They helped a lot of people with those bikes.”  

He remembers a time when they got to give something special together. One of the bartenders at Applebees, Andrea, decided to hold a fundraiser for a 12-year old kid with brain cancer. I later met the bartender, and look forward to telling the story about how they raised over $25,000. She, Lisa and Deborah all have pretty much the same thing to say about Kevin…that he’s an amazing, deeply kind human being. That they worry about him sometimes, what with all he has to deal with and how hard they know it must be, but that they’re also continuously amazed by his resilience and his generosity.

“They had a pub crawl as part of the fundraiser, but I wasn’t about to really crawl,” he says. “I’ll do my drinking on my own time. I was able to donate a Stratocaster Guitar and Amp to the raffle, though. Lisa and Debbie gave some of those custom bikes they’d put together. It was cool!!!”

Again, he misses the guitar, but he’s glad it went to a good cause.

“If there’s something to be done, I’m more than happy to help. Especially when it comes to kids.”


In Service to Others

I ask about other places he volunteers. “The VA is like a second home to me. I’m in appointments almost every day. I just wish they’d open up and let us volunteer again.”

It took a while to discover that this place which has helped him so much even existed. “I didn’t even know about the VA at first. Maybe they tried to tell me, but when you see those exit gates, really the only words you want to hear are about your freedom.

“I found out when I was working in the Tara Inn, and my knees started giving out. I had horrible gout and didn’t even know what it was.  A coworker saw me, and showed me the way.” The rest is history.

He’s also grateful for the elected official who went out of his way to make sure he got taken care of, “Tom Suozzi helped me with my disability. I am forever grateful. Still a Republican, but I’ll vote for him.”

He tells me how he used to act as an attendant at the VA, bringing patients to xrays or therapy, and just keeping them company through boring, stressful stuff. “They stopped all volunteer efforts with COVID and they still haven’t started up. Now it’s just one staff guy not getting paid near enough to handle EVERYTHING.”

He talks about how important it is for the patients to have fellow vets with them…folks with a chance of really understanding what it’s like to be them and to be there…how important it is for guys like him to be able to do that.

His face lights up when we start talking about another place he can relate…out at the ice rink in Bethpage with the kids of LI Sled Hockey. He tells me a little bit about this organization, which opens the sport up to anyone with a mental or physical disability, including veterans.

The athletes range in age from 11-68 years old. He tells me it’s amazing and that I should come check it out. I agree.

“I used to help them get dressed in their uniforms and all. I can’t do that now, but I show up and do what I can.”

This is a common refrain with him: “I show up and do what I can.”



Kevin also volunteers at the Little Shelter Animal Rescue and Adoption Center (https://www.littleshelter.org/ ).

“I work with the strays, helping to socialize them.”  Once you get to know Kevin for half a second, it’s not hard to picture this gentle giant transforming feral cats with hard knock lives into something a little softer and more trusting.

“I’m a cat fanatic,” he says, his eyes starting the smile this time, “I have five inside my house – Timmy, Zack, Oreo, Dora and Lemmy — and about 20 that wander around this tree farm I live on. Whenever one pops up needing a home, I help them out. It’s kind of tough, though, because I spend about $100 a month just on their food.”

Vet bills?  He doesn’t really want to talk about those. He just chooses to be grateful that his money situation is ok.

“I do it because I can. It means a lot to me.”

He shows me another picture…this time of a kitten who recently passed. “It broke my heart.”

He quickly pivots to start talking about the other cats, and the property he’s happy to have, and gardening. He smiles again, “My garden is awesome.”

He talks about other places he wants to see … how he’s kind of got a bucket list that includes a lot of places on Long Island. He loves Heckscher Park. He wants to know if I’ve seen Oheka Castle. He’s interested in learning about other organizations, especially ones involving music and veterans and kids.

He talks about his roommate, a retired Navy vet whom he drives to work at the VA at 5am every morning, and about the rigorous schedule he keeps with all of his own appointments and making it to Island Harvest by 9am, and to Sled Hockey every Tuesday and Saturday. He talks about how he’s going to PA to “house hunt.” 

“I’m not going anywhere myself,” he says. “This is my home. I’m going to help a friend. It’ll be nice.”

He tells me he was a city kid first, “I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. My parents brought me out to the Island to keep me out of trouble.”

His eye twinkle. “It didn’t work.”

He’s had his fill of trouble, but he’s really only ever hurt himself. Now the game is to make the most of the time he has. He finds the trick to overcoming all the darkness that would haunt is to just keep going.

“I don’t sit still. I just keep moving.”


“I would love to Volunteer back at the VA. I could just answer the phones. Anything.”

This bears repeating over and again because it’s really important to him…to a lot of folks. “It’s good not only for the patients, but for us, too. We’re mostly veterans ourselves and doing this means a lot. Plus, just one guy having to do that whole huge job just isn’t right.”

Surviving Lockdown…

Of course, everything stopped during COVID. Suddenly, there was nothing to do.

“Lockdown was too much. I drank way too much,” he admits. “There was just too much death and pain and suffering. My brother died of COVID. I didn’t even get to see him….”

A shadow crosses his face and he pauses, but then this storm, too, seems to pass somewhat.

“We had a memorial for him a few months ago. That was nice.” He went to Cancun in May for this. Even better, he saw family. “I saw all my nieces and nephews. They were little shits last time I saw them. Now they’ve all got little shits of their own.”


Please – This is Important

I ask him, if there’s anything he really wants to make sure I include. He tells me that he wants folks to know that LI has the biggest number of veterans in the US; that he is grateful for Stand Down events and, “That I never want to see a homeless veteran again.”

His biggest wish is for the VA to start taking volunteers again.

“I would love to Volunteer back at the VA. I could just answer the phones. Anything.”

This bears repeating over and again because it’s really important to him…to a lot of folks. “It’s good not only for the patients, but for us, too. We’re mostly veterans ourselves and doing this means a lot. Plus, just one guy having to do that whole huge job just isn’t right.”

He doesn’t want to complain. He’s really grateful to the VA for all it does and how veterans are taken care of in all aspects, but he hopes the policy changes and that he can get back to serving fellow veterans there soon.

“It matters.” He says, “It’s too much for just one guy and people need people.”

We hear him and offer our humble thanks for his service and for every way he finds to keep on giving.

It means a lot.


These are the organizations Kevin volunteers for.

Please consider offering them your support as well :

Island Harvest: Founded in 1992, Island Harvest Food Bank is a member of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, with a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. We distribute fresh produce, meat and non-perishables throughout Long Island and assist thousands of Long Islanders daily through our innovative programming and network of community partners.

Little Shelter Animal Rescue and Adoption Center: “a non-profit, no-kill animal shelter nestled on six wooded acres in Huntington, Long Island. We have been dedicated to saving abandoned dogs and cats and placing them into loving forever homes since 1927. Age, physical condition, and socialization issues are never criteria for rescuing a dog or cat whose life is in jeopardy.”

“The Rough Riders” of LI Sled Hockey: “Our mission at Long Island Sled Hockey, Inc. is to foster, promote and encourage sportsmanship, teamwork and camaraderie through the sport of sled hockey, specifically aimed at a…population of physically and/or mentally challenged athletes.”

The Northport VA: “The VA Northport Healthcare System provides you with outstanding health care, trains America’s future health care providers, and conducts important medical research. “



If you would like to help a Main St. business, The Firefly Artists, make their 2nd Floor Darcy Arts Center Handicapped Accessible, please make a donation in honor of Kevin on the Synchronicity website: