MAHOPAC, N.Y. - A gigantic America flag blew in the breeze over South Lake Boulevard Saturday afternoon, July 8, as volunteers stood in the streets taking donations from motorists passing by Mahopac Marine.
It was all part the third annual Armed Forces Appreciation Festival, a celebration superintended by the Melchner family—owners of Mahopac Marine. The event was the brainchild of Charlie Melchner Jr., born out of his deeply ingrained patriotism and a desire to help out U.S. vets.
Melchner conceived of the idea several years ago along with his friend Rich Castellano, while they were out having dinner one night. They sketched out the idea on a dinner napkin, imagining an event that would raise money for disabled vets, but also entertain and educate people about the military and its history. The festival, as they imagined it, would take place every year the first Saturday after the Fourth of July.
“More and more people have wanted to come [to the festival] and display things about our vets and the military and its history,” Melchner said. “I like that because I remember I went to a Memorial Day parade with my kids and it bothered me that they didn’t understand what it was all about. I wanted them to know why [the vets] are here and what they’re doing.”
The marina grounds on Saturday were covered with displays of military vehicles and equipment, as well as booths touting the services of veteran advocacy groups and local civic organizations such as the recently formed Mahopac Lions Club. And for the first time, the festival honored a specific fallen solider—Jordon Bettio, an Air Force pilot who died in 2007. Bettio’s parents, Jack and Barbara, were on hand to receive a plaque from Melchner. He said he met the Bettios through a mutual love of off-roading.
“[Jordon] was an incredible human being and I am sad that I didn’t get to spend enough time with him,” Melchner said. “I met his parents through off-roading and we became lifelong friends. He flew many secret missions and was a great pilot. We wanted to honor someone so people had the opportunity to understand what making the ultimate sacrifice is.”
The first year the festival was held, it raised a little more than $5,200. Last year, the fundraising surpassed $8,700 and Melchner expects this year should be on par with that.
Melchner noted every dollar raised is donated to the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
“It’s not the profits that are given away—everything is. All the proceeds,” he said.
The money helps two local DAV chapters fund programs and events they run for veterans, such as the ones at the Montrose and Castle Point veterans hospitals. In fact, about 30 veterans from Montrose, all who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, were bused down to enjoy the festivities along with plenty of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Castellano, who is commander of Chapter 23 of the DAV, said the money from the festival will help him take the veterans on excursions such as dinner theater trips, ball games and restaurant outings.
“It gets them active and out of the hospital,” he said.
Mike Hartnett, commander of Chapter 137 of the DAV, said the donations he received helped pay for an Italian dinner supplied by a local restaurant for bedridden veterans.
“They really loved that,” he said.
For the ambulatory vets at the hospital, Hartnett said the money from the festival helps pay for outings to places such as IHOP, Appleby’s and Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse.
He had high praise for the Melchner family and the Armed Services Appreciation Festival.
“Charlie donates quite a bit of money,” Hartnett said. “He’s a super guy, a patriotic American.”
Melchner pointed out that while he may have conceived the idea, the Mahopac community quickly got behind it. The food, the music, and all the items made available as prizes for the myriad raffles held throughout the day, were donated by local businesses. Pozzitiv Productions, a DJ business, provided music all day long free of charge. Cross Road Deli workers volunteered to help to grill burgers and hotdogs.
Besides assorted raffles, there was also an array of silent auctions held throughout the day. The event also featured a “Most Patriotic Boat” competition as boats festooned in their most patriotic ornamentation paraded on Lake Mahopac just offshore from Mahopac Marine. This year’s winner was the Newell family of Mahopac, who took a home a trophy presented by the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.
John Bourges, who heads up the Putnam County PFC Joseph Dwyer Vet2Vet Program, had a booth at Saturday’s festival and said the event was important to his organization.
“This is the third year we have been coming here and this is just fantastic,” he said.
Vet2Vet provides networking services to veterans who need someone to talk to or lean on and Bourges said events like the Armed Forces Appreciation Festival provide him with the opportunity to spread the word.
“This program is so important and we don’t want it to disappear,” he said. “That’s why we were here—to raise awareness. I had one vet come up to me earlier and she said, I don’t know if I am ever going to need [Vet2Vet] services, but just knowing it’s out there and I’ll have someone to turn to is a relief.”