As America celebrates Veterans Day, GOOD Morning Wilton would like to recognize some of Wilton’s own veterans. Town employees Phil Damato, Zen Herter, Kregg Zulkeski and Jonathan Patry have served across three divisions of the United States Armed Forces. Although their respective stories of service tell of varying circumstances and experiences, their collective sacrifices are bound by honor and humility. We are grateful for the dedication, bravery and commitment of these veterans and all who have served to keep us free.
Phil Damato, Tax Collector
Phil Damato is a former Wilton resident and has been the Town of Wilton tax collector for 23 years. He served in the United States Air Force during what is arguably the most complex military and political conflict in American history: the Vietnam War.
By 1967 there were 500,000 American troops stationed in Vietnam. Damato was a student at Norwalk Community College and knew that he would soon be drafted. “During a six-month deferment for economic hardship, which I was granted so I could help my father recover after his restaurant was destroyed by a fire, I enlisted in the Air Force.”
He began his four-year service at basic training in Texas, where he remained for Tech school. He learned critical mechanical skills and achieved his highest test scores in the administration field. “Everybody in my Tech class except me was deployed to Vietnam. I was ordered to the United Kingdom as a crew chief. I was very fortunate.”
When Damato first arrived as the crew chief he oversaw the mechanical work on F-100 aircrafts. This was followed by the new and problematic F-111 aircrafts, which had Terrain Following Radar. “I was one of the first crew chiefs on the F-111.”
Luck was on Damato’s side again when he was one of 13 men selected out of the 5,000 others on the base to travel intermittently to different American Air Force bases with the F-111s so American pilots could train on the new aircrafts. “I was very lucky at that time, because I could have very easily gone with everyone else to Vietnam.”
In addition to providing pilots the opportunity to train, Damato’s crews made viewings of the F-111 aircrafts available to local governments. Deployments for these purposes were typically 30 days and included stops in Germany, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Spain and Libya, which was the most noteworthy: “I was at Wheelus Air Force base in Tripoli when Gaddafi took over in 1969. They gave us 24 hours to pack up and get out. We left half our equipment there because we just didn’t have enough time to get it out. Ironically, nearly 20 years later in 1986, the same F-111 that I worked on was used in the United States attempt to assassinate Gaddafi.”
His good luck was not limited to his deployments; it also brought charmed camaraderie with a fellow Air Force comrade. “I was there when Sam Damato, from New Britain, CT arrived at the base. We had the same name, came from the same state, and shared the same birthday. They mounted our planes on the same hardstand and called it ‘Little Sicily.’”
Zen Herter, Environmental Analyst
Zen Herter has been Wilton’s environmental analyst for nearly a year, responsible for overseeing trail maintenance, conducting wetlands inspections, and managing all open spaces in Wilton.
Military service was a forgone conclusion for Herter, as both of his parents were adamant that serving one’s country was expected. His father served 20 years in the United States Air Force and his mother, who is from Korea where military service has been mandatory since 1957, supported military service as well.
Herter was less inclined but accepted his family’s expectation.
“I was a scrawny kid in high school. I was bullied a lot, so serving really scared me,” he says. Nevertheless, in 1994 he enlisted in the United States Army, where he remained for three years in the First Calvary division. “If I had to serve, I wanted it to be in the U.S. Army. I wanted to toughen up.”
Herter was also enticed by the U.S. Army’s financial assistance program to support education after service, which required a shorter service commitment than the other branches as another incentive.
Despite a difficult transition period, he was determined to assimilate. “The first two weeks I cried. Then I bought into it. I became a solider. And I will always be a solider.”
Herter did his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He was later stationed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas for three years before being deployed to Kuwait, where he worked in motor transport during Operation Desert Shield. He credits his training and service with giving him a voice, teaching him discipline, and instilling resolve to push through to get a job done. “I joined the army and I grew up.”
Following his active duty service, Herter pursued various artistic interests before returning to work as an electrician in the N.Y. State Air National Guard out of Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburg, N.Y.
Notwithstanding his sacrifice for our country, Herter’s humility is evident. “I get uncomfortable when people thank me for my service. I believe serving in the military is something every citizen should do.”
Kregg Zulkeski, Parks and Recreation Administration Manager
Kregg Zulkeski is the newest face in Wilton’s Parks and Recreation Department, working as the Administration Manager since just this past May. He’s been enjoying the creative aspects of the job, helping to create and run the variety of programs Parks and Rec offers. Creativity was also part of his life in the military–he served as a member of the United States Army Band, touring the world as a military musician.
“I didn’t even know it was a thing at first, it was a surprise to me and when I found out, I was like, that’s great,” he recalls.
He grew up in Norwalk as a self-described music nerd, playing in the high school marching band, jazz band and orchestra as well as a rock band outside of school. Zulkeski’s skill set was ample: he played tuba, guitar and a little bit of bass trombone. He went to the University of Miami as a double major in music and political science.
“There’s part of me, I always wanted to do some kind of government service or military or something. So I had that in my back pocket along with the music stuff. And I think, was it 2011 when they killed Bin Laden? That was when I was like, I’ve got to do that. I was set. I wanted to be a special operator,” he says.
Throughout college, Zulkeski had his mind set on being a Navy Seal, until the day a member of the Florida National Guard came to one of his college band rehearsals.
“This woman came in Army uniform with a trumpet. She was like, ‘Did you know you could play music for the Army?’ I didn’t know that was a thing. All these branches have bands, but it’s such a well kept secret. They can be very selective. They can take whoever they want. They can take however many instruments, whatever skillset they want. So I called an army recruiter that day. I auditioned and I got accepted first time, which isn’t always the case. So I told the Navy, ‘Yeah, no thanks,” he laughs, describing the unusual choice he made between being a Navy Seal or an Army musician. “I was sold as soon as I found out, you know, you can go play music and still serve. To me, that was like you’re doing the best of both worlds.”
After graduating from college, Zulkeski did 10 weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, graduating on D-Day. Shortly thereafter he started with the Army School of Music, which was actually on a Navy base in Virginia Beach.
“Music school was 12 weeks. You’re still doing army stuff, learning how to shoot, move and communicate. Wake up, you do PT in the morning and then the rest of the day there were soldiering skills and then music stuff. I had up to three, four hours a day to just practice. Just be in a practice room,” he recalls.
With the top score at the end-of-training audition, he got first pick on where he’d be stationed, choosing between Fort Bragg and Sembach Kaserne in Germany. It was a no-brainer, Zulkeski says. “You only get one chance to move to Europe.” There, he was assigned to the Soldiers Chorus as a bandsman–the ‘special duty’ of the military musicians. “We got all the good gigs and we stayed at all the good hotels,” says Zulkeski.
The band had two missions–diplomatic outreach at the assignment of the commanding U.S. General in Europe, and touring more widely. Gigs ranged from performing for local nationals and playing joint appearances with military bands from other countries, to extended tours.
“You’re kind of like, this is what we do and we’re not all like monsters with machine guns, that kind of thing. The last one I did was a 10-day tour through Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech, and Austria, all these beautiful towns. We always played American artists. We did Bon Jovi as an opener, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer.’ We did John Mellencamp, we did Bob Seger, and then we did some new stuff. Maroon 5, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, top 40, classic rock.” Sometimes it would be a small ensemble, other times they’d have 80-100 performers, with both musicians and singers.
Representing the United States armed with music was very special for Zulkeski.
“It’s a universal language. So even dealing with people who don’t speak English, you can still make that connection with another person without having to say a word to them, which was very cool,” he says, recalling one tour in the Ukraine in particular.
“We did the ambassador’s 4th of July party in Kiev, which was cool. Then wWe did like an amphitheater concert and had probably 2,000 people show up. That was probably my favorite concert by far. We played a three-hour set in Lviv right after Russia had invaded Crimea and the Ukrainians were… you understand the divide that created. Lviv was one of those places where they had a huge protest and we actually played a concert on the rock where they protested. When I got home we had all these messages from these Ukrainians, ‘Thank you so much for coming, what you did means a ton.’ A lot of times it’s just to show yourself and play, or you had your selfish reasons–I got to practice guitar all the time and I got to tour the world and meet some cool people–but at the same time, the impact you have could last like months or even years,” he says.
The message Zulkeski has for anyone considering service to the country is that it’s possible to do so in a way that’s very personal. “There’s so many opportunities to do so and it doesn’t even have to be military service. Even working for the VA or something like that, there’s plenty of opportunities out there. For me to be able to serve through music was incredible for sure.”
Wilton Police Officer Jonathan Patry
Ofc. Jonathan Patry has worked as a patrolman in the Wilton Police Department for five years and was a member of the United States Marine Corps.
Despite his family’s initial reluctance, for Patry there was no question that he would serve in the U.S. military as soon as he got the opportunity. “I always felt a pull towards military service. My father, who served in Vietnam, would have preferred that I continue my education after high school graduation. And Lord knows my mother did not want me to enlist,” he says.
Prompted by research he did for a school project during his freshman year of high school, Patry visited a local Marines Corps recruiting office and immediately envisioned himself as a U.S. Marine. Shortly thereafter a young, impressionable Patry witnessed the terrorist attacks on United States soil on September 11, 2001. “9/11 pushed me over the fence. Someone has to make the sacrifice and I wanted to do my part to protect this great country.”
In 2004 Patry began his active duty stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. As part of the first battalion he was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and again in 2007, where he was an Infantry Rifleman. He conducted foot and vehicle patrols throughout Iraq, performing community outreach for intelligence purposes, and security vehicle patrol in search of roadside explosives.
After Patry completed his four years of active duty he returned home to Brookfield, CT and, with financial aid from the Post 9/11 G. I. Bill, enrolled at Western Connecticut State University, where he received his degree in Political Science.
Patry credits his military training and service with providing him some critical skills as a police officer, including discipline and situational awareness. “I was determined to serve my country and the traits I developed as a U.S. Marine help serve my work.”