Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Memorial Day Should Be Every Day

“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” ~ Maya Angelou

Memorial Day was established to honor those Americans who have given their lives for our country. The holiday was first recognized in Waterloo, New York in 1866. Since 1971, it has been celebrated on the last Monday in May.

The number of Armed Forces killed or seriously wounded since the birth of this nation has totaled way over 1,000,000. For too many Americans, the recognition of the sacrifices our fellow citizens have made for us ends when we return to work the next day. However, many veterans among us face significant challenges every day in readjusting to society, even decades after their service. For those veterans in our midst, it is important that we remember them all year long. The Guardian spoke with local veterans and veterans groups to learn what issues they face.

Memorial Day Should Be Every Day David, a Vietnam vet who works with local veterans (his named has been changed at his request), stressed that all wars are basically the same, “Although the way wars are fought may change, you’re still a young person trying to kill a person you don’t even know.” He explained, “Trying to adjust to that when you come home is extremely difficult”.

David noted that current veterans returning home with injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan are often brain-damaged. They are now competing for nursing home space with aging veterans from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. “Fortunately there are lots of resources available to returning veterans in our area” David noted.

Westchester County is home to many agencies that cater to our local veterans. The County government operates a Veterans Service Agency (914-995-2145). According to County literature, the services offered by the agency “include free accredited representation, securing military and personnel records, obtaining medals and awards and assistance with veterans’ real property tax exemption filing and veterans’ medical ID card enrollment”. (Westchester County did not return our request for an interview for this article). Veterans can also turn to other local agencies for assistance. ere are dozens of veterans groups in our midst. Both New York State and the Federal government also have local centers, hospitals, and agencies dedicated to assisting our local veterans.

The New York State Legislature has announced several proposed changes to current laws governing education, health, taxes, jobs, and support to expand benefits offered to veterans in our state. The current State Budget already allows for veterans to receive a tuitionfree
education in the State and New York City University system. Other New York universities are following the State Legislature’s lead. Pace University announced on May 14, 2008 that it is establishing a “Veterans’ Tuition Scholarship Program” for veterans from all branches of the United States Armed Forces who served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq since September 11, 2001. According to Pace, “The new program grants eligible veterans a 50 percent tuition scholarship for new students in both undergraduate and graduate programs”. Veterans who apply
will also have their application fee waived. However, Pace Law School is not participating.

While able-bodied veterans can partake of these educational opportunities, many returning veterans have to overcome both physical and mental issues first. Senator Vincent Liebell, (Rep) 40th District, spoke to The Guardian about how Albany is addressing those issues. “We have just included $150,000 in the state budget to provide service dogs for our veterans, for example” Liebell said. “Washington does
not pay for this. These dogs provide an invaluable service. One local veteran lost both of his legs and is blind in one eye. His wife works and they have a young baby. The dog is trained to fetch the milk for the baby and to turn on the lights in a dark room since the vet is afraid of darkness. We have to provide these dogs to assist our veterans”, Liebell stressed.

According to Senator Liebell’s of-ficial biography, he is “a Navy veteran who has served on active duty, and rose to the rank of Captain in the United States Naval Reserve, commanding a unit based in upstate New York. In 2001, Senator Leibell was appointed to the rank of Rear Admiral in the New York Naval Militia”. Senator Liebell is the Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security
and Military Affairs. He spoke to The Guardian at length on this topic.

“The VA (Veteran’s Administration) system has unbelievable facilities and incredibly dedicated doctors, nurses and workers” Liebell noted. “But it is a large bureaucratic system. We want New York State to be the leader in assisting our veterans. This is a bipartisan topic and has tremendous support.” Liebell noted that the major difference in the current conflicts are the injuries sustained by the soldiers but stressed, “The medical care our injured soldiers receive on the ground is amazing. They get medical care faster than previous conflicts and even faster
than someone back home in the United States. As a result, our soldiers are surviving at incredible rates. I am in awe of the work the doctors do”. Those soldiers, once they have recovered from their physical injuries, want to return to the work force and lead normal lives.

Liebell noted that the current returning veterans are a talented work pool and a “disciplined work force.” He explained, “We are expanding our educational programs to work with returning veterans. We have, in effect, put a New York State GI bill into this year’s budget. We want to keep our veterans in New York State. And we want our employers to hire them”.

NYS Senate Announces Bills To Help Veterans And Military Members

Members of the New York State Senate Majority Conference today introduced a package of legislation that would provide greater benefits and protections to New York’s military personnel.

Educational Opportunities for Veterans

This year’s state budget included $4.5 million to provide tuition assistance for veterans enrolled in an approved graduate, undergraduate and vocational program. Veterans’ tuition assistance was increased from $2,000 per year to $4,350, allowing veterans to attend a SUNY or SUNY school tuition-free. If a veteran chooses to attend a private school, they will receive the equivalent towards their education costs.

Veterans enrolled in part-time studies will receive a pro-rated amount. In addition, the enacted budget expanded the eligibility for this program to cover all veterans who served in the Armed Forces in any hostilities since 1961.

• S.5644: Extends the National Guard Scholarship Awards program to cover graduate education programs (Senator Leibell); and

• S.8264: Creates a Task Force to study the implementation of a program to allow SUNY and CUNY to accept military courses for college credit. (Senator Maltese) Health and Mental Health Initiatives

The Senate will act on legislation (S.5603-A, Senator Leibell) that would provide for State pick-up for costs for single or family co-pays for all active National Guard members enrolled in the TRI-CARE military health plan.

The 2008-09 state budget includes $250,000 to train mental health providers in veteran-specific mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse issues. (S.6799-A, Senator Fuschillo, Passed Senate 5/12/08)

The budget also included $150,000 for the Canines for Veterans Program, to provide working support dogs to combat veterans who are injured in the line of duty, a program initiated by the Senate Majority.

To enhance measures taken in this year’s budget, the Senate has also introduced legislation to:

Add two members to the mental health services council -- one from the Division of Veterans Affairs and one from the Division of Military and Naval Affairs (S.7183, Senator Morahan);

Extend the statue of limitations for actions involving exposure to Agent Orange for two years (S.7832, Senator Leibell).

Tax Credits and Employment

Included in the Senate’s veterans’ package is legislation that would:

Give preference to service disabled veteran-owned small businesses with respect to state contracts (S.4218, Senator Leibell, Passed Senate 2007); Provide a tax credit to businesses that hire disabled veterans and veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (S.3068, Senator Trunzo); Allow members of the armed forces to take special military make up civil service exams (S.7792, Senator Leibell).

Support for Military Families

The Senate package includes several bills to provide support to military families whose loved ones are serving in the armed forces, including legislation to:

Authorize State and Municipal employees to be paid for up to 45 days of military deployment each year, up from 30 days (S.7830A, Senator Leibell); Establish the New York military family relief fund to provide grants to military members who are called to active duty for more than 90 days and are stationed more than 300 miles from their primary residences (S.7643-A, Senator Larkin); Require the Division of Military and Naval Affairs and the Office of Children and Family Services to develop a day care assistance program when one or both parents who are members of the military are mobilized for active duty (S.4429, Senator Leibell);

Establish a personal income tax credit for the purchase of equipment used in the performance of duties (S.702, Senator Nozzolio); Provide recruiting incentive awards for New York National Guard and New York Air National Guard (S.3654-A, Senator Leibell); Prohibit courts from making determinations in child custody proceedings when a parent is activated, deployed, or temporarily assigned to military service
(S.5860, Senator Rath); Amend the domestic relations law to state that a parent’s military status shall not affect his or her parental rights during custody proceedings (S.5863, Senator DeFrancisco).

Honoring Our Veterans

In addition, the Senate plan includes components to honor our active military members, veterans, and their families. The package includes bills that would:

Authorize the use of State funds for the operation and maintenance of state veterans’ cemeteries (S.8010, Senator Leibell) Establish the Veterans Memorial Preservation Act (S.7879-A, Senator Leibell); and Establish May 11 as Military Spouses Day in New York State (S.6844, Senator DeFrancisco, passed Senate 3/18/08).

In addition to the legislation announced today, the Senate yesterday passed three bills that would: Exempt military personnel serving in a combat zone from income tax on compensation for their service (S.3574-A, Senator Lanza); Provide a United States burial flag for veterans of the New York Guard (S.7515, Senator Saland); and Allow the Defense Department 214 as proof of service for Cold War veterans applying for a real property tax exemption (S.6697, Senator Maziarz).

Liebell noted, “The major difference in the current conflicts is that many vets are in both theaters (Iraq and Afghanistan) and are rotating all over. Plus they are serving multiple tours of duty”. This difference presents a new set of challenges for the mental health providers in the Veterans Administration facilities. Dr. Ken Reinhard, of the F.D.R. VA Hospital in Montrose, spoke to The Guardian about the challenges
these veterans face. “The biggest dif-ficulty for our newest veterans is they come home, readjust to living their normal lives, and then they are now called back to serve again. These veterans can’t lose their hyper-vigilance and their heightened sense of their environment since they never know when they will be recalled. It’s harder for them to readjust to normal life”.

Dr. Reinhard is a clinical psychologist and has worked with veterans for over 30 years. The two greatest issues he deals with are combat issues and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder affects veterans of all con-flicts, and is now appearing even in veterans
of World War II. Dr. Reinhard, along with other VA psychologists, has reported the unique sequence of events that have led to the recent developments of PTSD in WWII vets: “Many of these veterans have possibly been suffering PTSD since their return home in the 1940s and ‘50s….

These are tough children of the Great Depression, who went to war, won it and came home to build fresh lives. They have known terrible privation and horrific violence, but learned they couldn’t afford to wallow in their emotions. Tears wouldn’t put food on the table or knock
out the machine gun killing their friends. So they swallowed their feelings, got the job done and moved on. But now all of the hurdles have been cleared. They’ve retired and are no longer able to keep their minds occupied by working 15 hours a day. There’s time to remember, and all those feelings they swallowed have started to bubble back up again, primed by incessant WWII tributes and the deaths of wives, siblings
and friends that remind them of other loved ones lost years ago”.

Reinhard noted that all veterans have similar challenges. “They are all young men going into situations away from home facing situations that would be traumatic for anybody. In the current conflicts, however, they are also dealing with explosive devices that can go off at any time. Just driving down the road is hazardous. That makes adjusting to normal life even harder”. Yet Reinhard noted the differences for each
group of returning veterans: “In WWI and WWII, everybody went to war and they had a sense of direction. In Korea it was less so since it was ‘not a war’. Vietnam veterans had to reintegrate into a society that blamed them. We’ve learned a lot from Korea and Vietnam on how to help and treat our veterans.” Reinhard noted that the difficulty for most veterans is handling the personal relationships around them. “The VA groups help them to connect with others who have similar experiences. We help them normalize their feelings so they can have normal relationships. Our first step is to help our vets feel accepted in the VA – we just try to help them feel good. Then we help them adjust.” He stressed, “That adjustment can be difficult for young veterans who return to a world that is moving very fast. They find it hard to relate and are in danger of anesthetizing themselves. So we help them to understand that being a combat vet is only one part of their lives. It colors your life, but they can blend it in. They need to reframe where they’ve been”.

Betty Gilmore runs several outpatient programs for the VA in Montrose including their homeless and substance abuse programs. “When it comes to PTSD we are trying to intervene a lot sooner” Gilmore noted. “The VA is mustering a lot of resources for our returning veterans. These young people want to return to their lives. We offer them a variety of services to assist them”. The VA services include community
based health clinics, subsidized housing and support housing groups, and supervised residences for the mentally ill. She pointed out, “The Vietnam vets had to go forward without help and many developed substance abuse problems. These vets were drafted and often went into war with existing problems, problems that were exacerbated by the war. But these older vets are now taking on a supportive/protective role
with our recent returning vets. They are mentoring them to ‘stick with it’ and get the help they need”. That help is critical. About 1/3 of
all the homeless in our society are veterans – a total of over 194,000 nationally.

Gilmore estimates that there are about 3,500 local veterans that have experienced homelessness at some point. “Many are helped and discharged. Some do well and then regress. There are as many different stories as there are veterans. But no matter how many times they fall down, they want to put their lives back in order”. Gilmore noted that the “signature injury of this conflict has been the traumatic brain injury. The nature of the troops and their composition has also changed the nature of the VA’s programs. “Over 10% of our troops are now women.
It is not uncommon for both parents to be called up. That presents unique challenges”. Gilmore noted. “Also, in prior wars, troops were often set to war as part of a base. The current troops are Reservists and National Guard Units”. The Reservists and Guards face difficulties
that regular military do not. “If you are regular military, you have a home base to return to” Gilmore said. “That base will have a network of programs to assist you upon your return and to assist your family while you are on duty. You will be surrounded by people with similar
experiences who understand you. As regular army, you also know that serving is your life – it is your job. The reservists are uprooted from their lives. And when they return home, they are often the only returning veteran in their communities. It can be particularly lonely.”

Both Gilmore and Dr. Reinhard repeatedly stressed that it was a privilege for them to serve in the VA. “A lot of people don’t understand that it’s a huge sacrifice just being there (in Iraq/Afghanistan)” Reinhard stressed. “These vets give up their daily lives for us. We should take a moment to reflect on how much our veterans have sacrificed for us in our place. For any of us who have been spared that, we should ask ‘what’s the price on that’?” It’s a question for all of us to ask every day of the year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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