It was last autumn when Charlie Gili, a Brooklyn resident who coaches youth hockey, launched a campaign to raise money – and appreciation – for families of soldiers killed in the line of duty of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gili, the son of a World War II veteran, believed the sacrifices of these soldiers had been somewhat forgotten as the wars have dragged on. So using his platform as a hockey coach, he did his part to make sure these soldiers got the recognition they deserve.
His campaign – which began last November – sought to raise money for the 211 servicemen from New York State killed in action during these wars. The drive revolved around “Support Our Troops” patches Gili sold to youth hockey organizations through the state. The patches – which sold for $5 a piece – were sewn onto uniforms and equipment bags, the better to raise awareness about both the fundraising drive and the soldiers.
The drive is now drawing to a close, and Gili will commemorate it with an October 4 ceremony at Floyd Bennett Field, located in southeastern Brooklyn. At the event, the names of all 211 fallen soldiers will be read by youth hockey players and coaches, elected officials and military personnel.
State Senator Martin Golden, who has worked closely with the Gili family on the project, will attend the event. Rep. Anthony Weiner and Councilmember Domenic Recchia, both of whom have been involved, have received invitations as well.
“When a country goes to war, people are paying attention. But as it goes on for a while, people start to take it for granted. What I was after was just to bring recognition to these people, because they’re New Yorkers just like us,” said Gili, who lives in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn.
By selling over 600 patches, the drive has raised $25,000, achieving Gili’s goal when he launched it. He expects to identify 50 families of the 211 who have lost loved ones, and give donations of $500 per family. Families with small children will get first priority.
But according to Gili, “The money’s important, but that’s not what this was about. It was more about using the patch sales and the patches themselves to show solidarity and support for the family members [of soldiers],” he said.
“It’s amazing, all the soldiers I’ve met during this campaign always have the same answer when I ask them: ‘What do you need?’ They say: ‘We just want to know that people at home care about us.’”
Gili said the drive has afforded him the opportunity to meet many soldiers and their families.
“I’ve had the opportunity, since I’ve started doing this, to meet with family members in Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, all over. I’ve had Vietnam vets come up to me and thank me, even a woman who was a nurse in World War II. It has been pretty special and emotional,” he said.
He also said the drive enabled him to encourage his youth hockey players to think about the serious issues of the day.
“I’ve always tried with the kids to be more than just a hockey coach,” said Gili, who in addition to his coaching, is chief of operations for the Brooklyn division of the Parks Department.
“I hope this teaches them to reflect on civic-mindedness, your responsibilities to your neighbors,” he said. “I wanted to instill some of that in them, because I don’t think kids get enough of that these days.”
The “Tribute to New York Troops,” which honors the 211 fallen soldiers from New York State from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, will take place Saturday, October 4 at 11 a.m. at Hangar 5 at Floyd Bennett Field, part of the Aviator Sports complex.