This Women’s History Month and the anniversary of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, we celebrate and honor notable local women in our community.
The following are just some of the local women veterans in Suffolk County:
Donna Zephrine, Army Airfield 3rd Infantry Division mechanic
Donna Zephrine was born in Harlem, N.Y., and grew up in Bay Shore. She went to Brentwood High School, graduated from Columbia University School of Social Work in May 2017 and currently works for the New York State Office of Mental Health at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center Outpatient State Operated Community Residence.
She is a combat veteran who completed two tours in Iraq. She was on active duty in the Army stationed at Hunter Army Airfield 3rd Infantry Division as a mechanic.
Since returning home, Zephrine enjoys sharing her experiences and storytelling through writing. Zephrine’s stories most recently have been published in the New York Times, Writers Guild Imitative, Suicide, The Seasons, Lockdown, Qutub Minar Review, Summer, War and Battle, Bards Initiative, Radvocate, Oberon, Long Island Poetry Association and The Mighty. Zephrine has participated in various veteran writing workshops throughout NYC. Recently, Zephrine was featured in USA Warrior stories and took part in The Warrior Chorus and Decruit, which encourage self-expression through looking at classical literature and performing it while relating it to your own life with war and trauma.
Currently, Zephrine is studying for her licensing in social work. Zephrine is always seeking new experiences to learn such as Toastmasters, which focuses on public speaking. She is involved in World Team Sports, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Wounded Warrior Project and Team Red White and Blue, Team Rubicon, Project9line and Provetus, and a volunteer at Brentwood Suffolk County Community College for vaccination distribution. In her spare time, Zephrine plays sled hockey for the Long Island Rough Riders. She also serves on an advisory board on Heroes to Heroes.
Lance Cpl. StaceyAnn Castro-Tapler, USMC, OIF, OEF veteran
President of the Women Marines Association, NY7 StaceyAnn Castro-Tapler has always been dedicated and passionate about doing the right thing for others. As a result, Castro-Tapler enlisted in the Marines in September 2001. After boot camp at Parris Island, Castro-Tapler attended Louis F. Garland Fire Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and became a crash fire rescue firefighter.
Castro-Tapler was assigned to Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 in New River Air Base, N.C. She was part of one of the first married couples deployed together in an active combat zone, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She also received a Presidential Citation’s for her unit’s efforts in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. During her stateside time, Castro-Tapler was selected to be the assistant to the sergeant major of New River Air Base.
Today she is the employment specialist at The Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program; working to end veteran homelessness. To date, Castro-Tapler has assisted over 443 homeless veterans with finding employment and created the 5K for Fighters race to support female veterans’ unmet needs. In 2020, Castro-Tapler was selected to be a part of that board by Legis. Susan Berland, and was unanimously voted to vice chairwoman of the Suffolk County Women Veteran Board.
In 2020, VFW Post 2913 elected Castro-Tapler as “Woman of the Year” for her outstanding contributions to the veteran community.
She is currently working on a project to open the first Women Veterans Transition home on Long Island. She lives in Patchogue with her husband John, their three children, and their fur babies.
Melissa R. Pandolf, retired master sergeant
Pandolf’s military career spans over 20 years. She served four years on active duty in the Air Force as a flight medic, both overseas and stateside. After separating from active duty, she joined the reserves and deployed to the United Arab Emirates.
She then transferred from the reserves to the Air National Guard, where she retrained from flight medicine to financial management for seven years before returning to her original career field as a medic. Among other awards and medals, she was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement medal with two devices, Air Reserve Forces Meritorious Service Medal with five devices, National Defense Service Medal with one device, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the New York Defense of Liberty medal with one device for her deployment to Ground Zero following the events of 9/11. Pandolf retired in 2016 at the rank of master sergeant.
She now serves as the veteran service officer at Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency.
“[I gained] memories and experiences I will never forget,” she said of her military experiences, including a deployment to Balad AB, Iraq, in 2005.
Donna Kearney, petty officer second class
Donna Kearney, a Bay Shore resident, served with the Army Reserves from 1986 to 1994.
Shortly after she graduated from the New York City Police Academy in October 1990, she was activated under Operation Desert Shield, or the Persian Gulf War. She was stationed at a hospital in Philadelphia, Pa., and was later placed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. There, she met her husband, John Valeentino.
A few months later, she was asked to come aboard the USS Kitty Hawk to provide medical support.
“It was very controversial at the time,” Kearney said. “The vice admiral of the Naval Shipyard happened to be a woman, and she thought it was a great idea. The admiral was away, so we kind of got away with it!”
To be placed on the vessel, Kearney said she needed to get Temporary Assignment orders; at the time, women were not allowed on combative ships during wartime.
The experience was not without difficulty, Kearney said.
“I got cursed and spit at, yelled at,” she recalled. When she went aboard any vessel, she said she needed an escort to ensure that she wasn’t ridiculed or attacked for being a woman.
“Men just didn’t think that women belonged,” she said. “All the serving areas were set up for men, not for women. But it’s changed since then.”
In June 1991, Kearney was discharged and resumed her position as a New York City police officer and retired as a detective. For the past three years, Kearney has served as the commander of the American Legion in Smithtown. She will celebrate her 30-year anniversary with Valeentino later this year.
Marcelle Leis, M.S., chief master sergeant, (ret.), USAF/ANG
Chief Master Sgt. (Ret.) Marcelle L. Leis enlisted in the United States Air Force and New York Air National Guard in 1989 and retired from the 106 Rescue Wing at F.S. Gabreski Airport, Westhampton Beach, N.Y., on Feb. 1, 2013.
Highlights of her career include graduating from the USAF First Sergeant Academy with an assignment to the 106th Mission Support Group in June 1999, answering the called to duty on 9/11, deployment with the 106th Operations and Maintenance Group to Al Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, in support of Operation Southern Watch October 2001, and served a term as an adjunct instructor at the USAF First Sergeant Academy in July 2002.
Leis was appointed as the Wing Human Resources Advisor in April 2003. In November 2010, she was assigned as the chief enlisted manager of the 106th Security Forces Squadron. She was activated for numerous humanitarian community relief efforts during her career to include Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
Some of her notable military awards include: two Air Force Meritorious Service Medals, three Air Force Commendation Medals, three Air Force Achievement Medals, Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, two National Defense Service Medals, NYS Conspicuous Cross, and the Humane Service to NYS Medal.
After retirement she began working with veterans at the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, aiding them by offering support and connecting resources necessary to encourage wellness as they reintegrate from military service and transition to civilian life.
In 2019 she was promoted to the director of Veteran Services at the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, where she leads the team of staff at the veteran emergency shelter and permanent housing programs. Additionally, Leis serves on numerous Veteran Advisory Boards to include the Long Island State Veterans Home. She is a resident of Patchogue with her husband and their two adult children.