There are 12,537 veterans in Flagler County who rely on the Veterans Service Office to help them with their benefits.
The one veteran, known by most every other veteran in Flagler County, has decided it is time for him to take his retirement seriously. Sal Rutigliano, the Flagler County Veterans Service Officer for the past 15 years, has begun his last year of service. On Oct. 1, 2016 he is going to retire -- for real.
Rutigliano and his wife Cindy moved to Flagler County on Columbus Day weekend, 1999.
“I retired from the Army in Connecticut where Cindy and I were living,” he said. “At the time of my retirement my wife said, 'I’m going home to Florida – you can come.’”
Retirement isn’t right for everyone, and fortunately for Flagler County veterans, it wasn’t right for Rutigliano.
“After about a couple of months, I realized I couldn’t stay home. I had to get a job,” he said. “I became aware of this position; I applied for it; the county hired me; and I started on June 28, 2000. We started out in a converted garage across from the old courthouse.”
His 30 years of service began after college when he enlisted in the Connecticut Army National Guard.
“I started out in the artillery unit,” he said. “I enlisted on St. Patrick’s Day, 1969.”
Initially he was a traditional guardsman serving one week a month with two weeks of annual training. He was also teaching high school English.
“After teaching high school English for eight years I decided the military was safer,” he joked. “Teaching just wasn’t teaching anymore.”
He enlisted in the active guard and reserve program. When he retired he was a Sgt. Maj., the highest enlisted rank.
Having earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in education/media, Rutigliano said he has been asked why he didn’t become an officer, his answer is direct.
“I am not a political person,” he said.
Shortly after completing basic training and advanced individual training, his unit was activated for a Black Panther riot in New Haven in 1970.
“Our unit was among others in the state activated. We were in downtown New Haven. We were charged by rioters,” he said. “So when I am asked if I have been in a combat situation – yes, just not traditional combat.”
When units were preparing to mobilize for the first Gulf War, Rutigliano assisted the troops and made sure the families were taken care of. When the soldiers returned he was there to welcome them home and help explain their benefits.
“After about a couple of months, I realized I couldn’t stay home. I had to get a job.” Sal Rutigliano, Flagler Veterans Services Officer
He currently works with 12,537 veterans in Flagler County. These veterans are all age groups, with the majority being Vietnam veterans. He estimated there are approximately 1,200 WWII veterans.
His job is to assist veterans and their families when they are applying for benefits, recovering necessary documents, and filing claims. He knows the labyrinth of government red tape. He is also the adjunct for the Flagler Veteran Advisory Council.
The Rutiglianos are involved in several organizations, the American Legion being the primary. Cindy is president of the American Legion Auxiliary. On this day she is at a veterans wellness center in Volusia County with other volunteers, hosting a Halloween party. The night before, she and her husband were shopping for food and decorations for the party.
After the party the Rutiglianos’ schedule included assisting a veteran who was finally moving into the Bella Vista apartments through the HUD/VASH (VA Supported Housing) program. The apartment wasn’t ready when originally planned and he was homeless. Rutigliano started calling around to provide temporary housing until the apartment was ready.
“I called the American Legion post and they kicked in four nights at the Red Roof Inn, the VFW paid for another four nights, and the Marine Corps League took care of the remainder,” he said.
It’s that kind of caring and coordination county veterans have come to expect from their county service officer, and one he makes look easy.
Even when being interviewed for an article about his life, Rutigliano sees an opportunity to reach out to veterans.
“I keep telling veterans when I speak to groups, first you need a copy of your DD2-14 or discharge, you need one of those in order to apply for any benefit, if you don’t have it you need to send for it and we can assist with that electronically. Without it you get nothing from the VA, you cannot even be buried in the VA cemetery in Jacksonville.”
“Also, no matter what you’ve been lead to believe, or what your spouse thinks, if you are getting something from the VA on a monthly basis, when you pass on you do not get $250 death stipend, that’s Social Security. Congress did away with that in the VA in 1990.”
He has scheduled his retirement to coincide with the end of the fiscal year; but what will he do on Oct. 2, 2016?
“I am going to relax,” he said. “My wife and I like to travel a lot so we are going to a lot of traveling. I have certain hobbies, photography being one, so I am going to be doing more of that. I like fishing – I haven’t been fishing in years, I just don’t’ seem to have the time for it.”