The couple’s mission: to help the “forgotten heroes” of Long Island

New Hyde Park native Matthew Simoni’s life fell apart after he finished serving in an elite group of the US Navy. He lost his wife to divorce, his home to foreclosure, and even his will to live.

He was left homeless for a year and a half, living behind a convenience store in Virginia Beach and sometimes sleeping in a dumpster or in the woods.

Now Simoni, 37, has rebuilt her life and is helping other struggling veterans do the same. He and his wife started an organization in Bay Shore that tracks down homeless veterans on Long Island — some living in the woods — and helps them with everything from jobs to food to mental health counseling.

Subject of a new documentary

The work of Simoni and his wife, Jade Pinto, is also the subject of a new documentary about the work called “Long Island’s Forgotten Heroes” and made by a film production company based in Glen Cove.

What there is to know

  • A Navy veteran who himself had been homeless for over a year founded a non-profit organization in Bay Shore to try to help other homeless vets get back on track.
  • Matthew Simoni says he has already located 40 veterans living in the woodsin streets or other outdoor areas of a single section of Suffolk County
  • A film production company based in Glen Cove made a documentary chronicling the work of Simoni and his wife titled “Long Island’s Forgotten Heroes”

Veterans are “men and women who fought for our great nation,” said Simoni, whose nonprofit is called Bravo Foxtrot Veterans Inc. “It’s not fair that we don’t not do everything we can to reintegrate them into society and not leave. forget them.”

Bravo Foxtrot Inc. founders Matt Simoni, left, and Jade Pinto in front of their Bayshore headquarters and a donated minibus they use to transport homeless veterans.
Credit: Morgan Campbell

Instead of waiting for veterans to come see him in an office, Simoni said, he decided to go see veterans. He started at the train stations, which eventually led him to the veterans’ encampments in the woods.

Over the past year, he said, he has located about 40 veterans living in the woods, at train stations or other outdoor locations — from West Babylon to Patchogue, and as far afield as north than Wyandanch and Brentwood. There are likely hundreds more living offsite on Long Island, he said.

“We know this epidemic exists all across Long Island and all over New York State and across the country,” said Simoni, whose group also helps veterans living in homeless shelters.

33,000 homeless vets in the United States

The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 33,000 veterans are homeless nationwide — a number that Simoni and others call a vast undercount.

Many homeless vets have been traumatized by their service — killing people or seeing others die, including fight buddies — and struggle to reintegrate into their homes, Simoni said.

A veteran who appears in the film, Tyrone James of Brooklyn, describes how an improvised explosive device, or IED, was detonated in Iraq, ripping through the body of its commanding officer. James had to pick up the body parts and put them in a bag.

He hasn’t been the same since, James said.

“I think about it. I have nightmares. I go through it every day,” he says in the film. “I’m still there.”

“But what I’m trying to do is,” he continues, “I’m trying to move on. And I’ve never asked anyone to pity me.

When many veterans like James return home, they are disoriented and don’t know where to get help as they struggle with addiction, mental illness, PTSD, poverty and other issues, said Simony.

Vets donate services

Since founding his group last year, he has won the support of a high-ranking Suffolk County lawmaker, as well as lawyers and other veterans who have donated their services or their time.

The owners of a body shop in East Islip, Gary Teich and his son, Matthew, have donated a minibus which has been painted in camouflage and transports veterans to their appointments.

Steven Flotteron, Deputy Speaker of the Suffolk County Legislative Assembly, said Suffolk is home to more veterans than any other county in the state – with a significant number not rehabilitating after returning from the battlefield .

Flotteron, which links Simoni’s group to local businesses and government agencies, says Simoni has a particular ability to reach homeless veterans.

“He goes into the woods at night, off the highways, behind the stores, and he knows how to talk to them, because he himself slept in the dumpster,” Flotteron said.

“He has a charisma and a strength,” added Flotteron.

On a recent afternoon, Simoni and his wife visited a rehabilitation center in Massapequa where a once homeless Vietnam veteran is now recovering.

They brought Richard Shropshire clothes, food and advice on how to get legal help for service-related medical benefits.

“I’m almost in tears,” Shropshire, 74, said with a warm smile.

Later, Simoni and Pinto ventured into the woods off Sunrise Highway in West Babylon, where they encountered fellow veteran Freddy Miller, 43. and off for a year.

The couple had also helped Miller get medical help. For now, he is temporarily living with a vet who volunteers with the group.

Living in the woods, Miller said, was “awful,” with the constant noise of traffic a few feet away and raccoons descending on his site every night.

“I know I could come back here very quickly,” he said. “I live by the skin of my teeth, literally.”

10 years of career in the navy

Simoni’s work with veterans took a circuitous route. After high school, he attended Nassau Community College, then worked in construction, but wanted more.

“I wanted to do something big with my life,” he said.

So Simoni joined the army. He rose through the ranks to the prestigious Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia Beach, assisting the Seals in covert missions.

During a 10-year career from 2006 to 2016, Simoni said, he visited Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Chad, Sudan, Libya, Kenya and other countries.

At the time of his release, however, he was suffering from PTSD and other ailments, Simoni said. He lost five construction jobs in six months. Simoni’s life had passed.

In 2018, he moved back to Long Island, where he still had family. Soon after, he met Pinto, a tattoo artist from Islip who got him back on track. She encouraged him to seek therapy and use other holistic approaches, including meditation and natural foods, instead of prescription drugs. She also helped him see that doing charity work for others could help him heal.

Eventually, they formed Bravo Foxtrot together — she’s vice president.

They connect homeless veterans to agencies that provide things including preparing for a job interview, writing resumes, and even getting the right clothes, such as suits and ties.

Assistance to veterinarians

They have helped homeless veterans land jobs at Huntington Hospital and Southside University Hospital in Bay Shore. Another works in the kitchen of the headquarters of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.

A vet who had lived in the woods for years successfully won his VA case for disability payments and purchased a condo in Levittown, Simoni said. Other veterans, including James, have secured permanent or temporary affordable rental housing which the group has helped arrange.

Simoni’s minimal operation receives no official funding — he funds it out of his VA disability benefits and Pinto’s earnings as a tattoo artist, he said.

Eight months ago, the couple teamed up with local filmmakers to make a documentary aimed at drawing attention to the plight of homeless veterans. Tevin Foster and Julius Capio of Glen Cove-based Hazy Sun Production followed Simoni and Pinto into the woods and social services offices, among other places.

The film premiered on October 20 at the Bayway Arts Center in East Islip.

“It was kind of like an amazing experience, going out into the woods and seeing these guys living there for years,” said Foster, 28, of Brentwood.

Last spring, authorities or landowners entered some areas and evicted veterans, sometimes bulldozing their encampments, he said.

“Just getting kicked out of the woods is kind of mind-blowing,” Foster said. “Like, they’re already homeless and then they get kicked out of where they’re staying.”

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