By Andrew Wroblewski
Albert “Al” Statton might not be the only Long Islander dedicated to collecting supplies for veterans in need, but he is surely one of a kind. A U.S. Army veteran with 30 years of service, he has volunteered for the Greenlawn Fire Department for the last 24 years and is a three-time cancer survivor.
His bouts with cancer drove Statton, 64, to give back to his community in the form of food and supply drives that have benefited veterans in need over the last two years – drives he started while still undergoing cancer treatment.
“During the first cancer, a lot of my energy was focused on surviving the treatment and I had a very difficult time. When I got the subsequent second and third diagnoses of cancer, I had a problem with depression because everyone was telling me what I can’t do, what I shouldn’t do and what I won’t do,” said Statton, who was diagnosed with metastatic tongue cancer in 2009, prostate cancer in 2013 and then colon cancer in 2014.
He underwent a total of 10 surgeries, and nearly died on Dec. 18, 2009 from severe radiation burns caused by chemo and radiation therapy that made it nearly impossible for him to eat and breathe.
“I tried to take the focus off the misery of the treatment and refocus it on something that was greater than me.”
Statton said he took a “negative,” the pain and sorrow caused to him and his family by the diagnoses and treatments, and turned it into a “positive,” making donations to the Salvation Army whenever he was underwent chemo and/or radiation therapy at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“I created a need so that I could go on,” Statton said.
That need has since vanished, along with Statton’s cancer, but that hasn’t stopped him from continuing his mission. “They would say I’m cured, but I just like to say there’s no active cancer. That way, my feelings aren’t hurt so bad” if it comes back, he said with a laugh.
Under the name “Operation Enduring Care,” he’s collecting non-perishable food and other personal necessities like toiletries for needy veterans staying in the Salvation Army’s Northport Veterans Residence. The residence is located on the ground of the Northport VA and can host up to 50 homeless veterans on any given night, but is maintained by the Salvation Army and serves as an entry point for veterans to get involved in all of the services offered by the Northport VA.
Those who typically seek shelter in the Salvation Army residence are recently homeless or are in immediate need of help.
Statton said, “I’m trying to target those that are in immediate need of care, comfort and food, for the individuals who are brought in off of the street.”
The effects of Statton’s efforts have been felt by Northport VA brass as well.
“Albert should be proud of what he’s doing for his fellow veterans,” said Joe Sledge, public affairs officer at the VA. His donations “have helped Salvation Army homeless veterans’ residence carry out its mission of taking care of the veterans not only while they’re here on the grounds of the medical center, but when they leave, since they leave with these nutritional items that will help sustain them in their next steps of life.”
A Salvation Army representative was unable to be reached for comment before deadline.
Over the last two years, Statton said he and his wife Connie of 35 years have personally provided veterans with 2,500 meals and have collected over 10,000 items. When the couple’s youngest child, Aaron, was serving with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, they collected 7,000 lbs. of items under the name Operation Home Comfort and shipped them overseas for active-service members.
Statton was raised in Westbury where he attended Westbury High School before heading to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, graduating in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in laboratory technology. He served in the U.S. Army on active duty from 1970-1990 and remained in the reserves until 2000. After retiring from the Army, he began volunteering with the Greenlawn Fire Department, where he is now a captain and typically volunteers 40 hours a week.
Statton and his wife have five children: Albert IV, Aerin, Aaron, Heather and Samantha.
As volunteers, Statton and Connie do not charge for gas or time when making pickups and 100 percent of the donations they collect are given to those in need. Items can be dropped off at the Greenlawn Fire Department headquarters at 23 Boulevard Ave. in Greenlawn.
Statton can be reached at 631-835-3851 for more information on where and how donations can be made. Donations in the form of gift cards valid for stores where food can be purchased can be sent to Greenlawn Fire Department, Attn: Operation Enduring Care, 23 Boulevard Ave., Greenlawn, New York 11740.
“The thing about cancer is we have a tendency to think of it as just words, but it’s a profound condition that will put you in touch with your humanity and your mortality,” Statton said. “A lot of things that weren’t important become important.”
The little things become important, he added, such as “making sure you help somebody, are kind to somebody and that you have more good memories than bad memories.
“Now that’s important, it’s not necessarily a scratch off and millions of dollars, because I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t count that high anyway.”