PEF 39th Annual Convention:
Delegates get good news at veterans event
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF President Wayne Spence delivered welcome news to PEF convention delegates attending the annual veterans luncheon in Lake Placid.
Spence announced Gov. Cuomo recently signed legislation permitting school districts to offer eligible veterans real property tax exemptions.
While legislation can be very helpful, it is not really enough to meet the complex needs of veterans, Spence said.
“It can’t just be about legislation. We need to start stepping up and helping veterans get hired,” Spence said, noting that federal resources for veterans may become more scarce in the next year.
“I’ll be sending emails about this to the PEF Veterans Committee. We cannot let this happen,” Spence continued. “State agencies are taking a job designed for a veteran and giving it to a convicted felon. I have a problem with that.”
PEF Veterans Committee Chair Bruce Jagroop announced that a “table of honor” at the luncheon was symbolically left for “someone who never came back” from war and “who is not here with us, so we can be here.” Clearly moved by the thought of those who gave their lives, Jagroop added, “When I have to bury people I trained, I get teary-eyed.”
State Assemblyman Kenneth Blankenbush also addressed the group.
Blankenbush said he is an Air Force veteran, having served in Vietnam in 1969-70. He was a crew chief on planes that spread the defoliant “Agent Orange” on the jungle, and it was his job to load the chemical (dioxin) and service the equipment for spreading it.
“We sprayed twice each morning and I had it all over me. When I (told superior officers) I should have rubber gloves, a mask and other stuff to wear, I was told: ‘You’re in a war zone.’”
Blankenbush said the dioxin “goes into your fatty blood tissue” and his wife believes it has affected him.
“Until last year, I was the only veteran in the state Assembly and it took me years to get on the Assembly Veterans Committee. I finally got there two years ago,” Blankenbush said.
The state has approximately 892,000 veterans, he said, adding that in his opinion, “There’s a problem with the way the Veterans Administration is addressing this – Cold War versus wartime veterans. Someone who volunteered in the service is a vet.”
The legislator asked veterans to contact him and share their thoughts and ideas about needed services.
“You are always welcome to visit me. Your ideas help us. The more information you can give me, the better,” he said.
The veterans also heard from Indira Bokobza, a PEF lobbyist and assistant director of civil service enforcement and research, and from Jordanna Mallach, special program coordinator for the NYS Division of Veterans Affairs.
Bokobza said, “I am concerned about federal funding for Veterans Affairs. The president’s budget request is for $186.5 billion. The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate now have passed their budget bills and those bills must be reconciled.”
Mallach said her work focuses on connecting veterans to the services they’ve earned.
“Women are the largest growing sub-group of veterans,” she said. “About 50 percent of male veterans in New York are using their benefits, but only 40 percent of women veterans are using them,” Mallach said.
She urged all veterans to register with the Veterans Administration. “The more veterans who are enrolled in a VA (hospital), the more money is allocated to that VA facility. It’s important that everybody be counted.”
She added that just because a veteran feels they are healthy and does not currently need VA health services or other services, such as loans, that does not mean they should not register. Many service-related illnesses can develop years later, or it may take years to recognize the connection between an illness and their service.
“The Veterans Administration has no way to know where many Vietnam veterans and their families are,” Mallach said, and that could prevent the veteran or their surviving family members from receiving benefits.
She also cautioned that although it is illegal in New York state to charge a veteran for financial filing services, some lawyers and financial planners will try to hide their charges in fees for other services.