After serving in far-flung places around the globe, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam and Korea, Queens veterans – and, of course, military members throughout New York – know what it means to struggle – and not just on the battlefield.
Upon returning home from their tours abroad, veterans have faced a litany of daunting issues, from a lack of mental health support to being unable to afford housing or further education – something which Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he aimed to address and change with his first New York Veterans and Military Families Summit last week.
Joined by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tommy Sowers, along with leaders and representatives from a wide range of veterans groups, military bases, educational institutions, and private businesses, Cuomo and other officials discussed a myriad ways in which the state can improve services to its military men and women, as well as their families.
Additionally, as part of the summit, Cuomo announced multiple initiatives that will provide veterans and their families greater access to affordable housing, employment, and educational opportunities across the state.
The summit, which was held in Albany, focused on creating a comprehensive approach to improving services, including in the areas of affordable housing, employment, education, benefits, and mental health.
“We owe our veterans and military families a huge debt of gratitude – and the best way to express it is through action,” Cuomo said last Thursday. “Today’s summit is about taking action so more New York veterans can realize the American Dream they fought to protect. And when we invest in our veterans and military families, it pays dividends. We need their skill and leadership as we continue rebuilding the Empire State.”
There are more than 886,000 veterans in New York – thousands of whom may not be using the benefits available to them, Sowers stressed. The state is also home to the largest military base in the northeast, Fort Drum, where about 18,000 soldiers reside. Additionally, the oldest service academy, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, is situated in New York and trains about 4,400 future Army officers each year.
Of New York’s nearly 900,000 veterans, 72 percent served during periods of combat. Approximately 88,000 New Yorkers were in Afghanistan or Iraq.
During the summit, Cuomo announced a number of initiatives to provide more employment opportunities to veterans, including an initiative that would provide more state contracts to businesses owned by disabled veterans. Additionally, the governor said state and business officials will make an effort to place veterans in available jobs in the utilities industry.
Cuomo also announced a $50 million commitment from the state to provide affordable housing to veterans and their families. As part of the program, the individuals will be able to obtain a fixed-rate mortgage with a 3.875 percent interest rate. First-time homebuyers who are honorably discharged military veterans, National Guard, and reservists, as well as active military, qualify for this. Honorably discharged military veterans may participate even if they are not first-time homebuyers.
In an effort to make education more accessible to veterans, the governor said he is introducing legislation that would waive residency requirements for veterans attending any schools within the SUNY and CUNY systems under the federal G.I. Bill. With tuition set at the lower in-state rates, all tuition costs would be covered by the G.I. Bill, providing veterans access to the largest public system of colleges in the nation.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs, was invited by Cuomo to participate in the summit. The South Queens lawmaker stressed the importance of the issues discussed at the meeting, with topics ranging from “developing the best avenues for helping our veterans find new employment and succeed in business to finding ways to address homelessness and the devastating increase in suicide rates, particularly among young men who entered the service following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”
“This day-long ‘meeting of the minds’ on issues of importance to veterans and their families was very enlightening, and the information presented will be very useful in enabling New York state to better address the diverse needs, concerns, and aspirations of the courageous men and women who put their lives on the line in service to all of us,” Addabbo said. “I look forward to continuing to work on these issues in the Senate and back in Queens, where I expect to sponsor additional job fairs and other events for the benefit of local veterans and their families.”
Addabbo noted he is championing legislation aimed at helping veterans land jobs, as well as measures to study the rates of homeless women veterans in New York – a growing trend across the country.
By Anna Gustafson