It used to be that when Johnny came marching home, as the song goes, we’d give him a hearty welcome. The men would cheer, the boys would shout and the ladies, they would all turn out.
For the most part, America’s newest generation of military veterans returns to their hometowns from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq with little fanfare, except among their family and friends. Local service agencies say the federal Department of Veterans Affairs does not notify them when local soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines come home, making it tough to let them know about the benefits available in the lower Hudson Valley.
“It’s been a problem for decades,” said Vietnam veteran Jerry Donnellan, director of the Rockland County Veterans Service Agency. “I’ll bet you lunch that there’s a young veteran just out of the service within two miles of where I’m sitting who could use our help. But he doesn’t know we exist and we don’t know where he is.”
Ryan Barry got out of the Navy in April 2009, after being deployed in the Gulf of Oman aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Living in New Rochelle and going to school, it wasn’t until a year later that he found out about the Westchester Veterans Service Agency, through a classmate who was also a veteran.
The military “tells you about benefits when you’re getting out, but the class is really short and you’re so excited about going home that you don’t pay much attention,” he said. Eventually, Barry got in touch with the Westchester veterans office in White Plains, which helped him obtain VA disability payments for knee and back problems. He’s also attended group counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and is involved with the Veterans Writing Workshop sponsored by Fordham University. He now lives in Connecticut in hopes to continue school at UConn Stamford in January.
“It really would have been nice to know that all these services were available when I first got home,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer agrees. In March, after learning that tens of thousands of veterans are not taking advantage of New York’s property tax exemption for former military members, Schumer wrote to VA Secretary Eric K Shinseki, asking that information on the benefit be included in VA home loan information packets.
Shinseki replied that the VA is reviewing the best ways to help.
“Clearly, the VA is not moving fast enough,” Schumer said. “On Veterans Day, we must give thanks to service members, young and old, past and present, for their bravery and sacrifice in defense of our great nation. But, this sign of gratitude is useless if veterans don’t know what’s available to them.”
While the VA continues to review its procedures, Putnam Veterans Service Agency Director Karl Rohde is hoping he may have found a crack in the information wall. In a conversation with his counterpart in Suffolk County over the summer, Rohde learned that a little-known VA policy provides for the release of names and addresses of veterans for the purpose of advising them of local benefits and programs. He applied immediately.
“I just got a call from them on Tuesday asking what format I want the information sent in,” the Vietnam veteran said. “We have people out there with injuries, PTSD and even some who are suicidal. We have to be able to get in touch with them, so we can try to help them.”
There are many different benefits available that usually go unknown, such as disabled veterans are entitled to free admission in all state parks, some veterans who own property can be considered for tax abatements, and veterans who rent property can receive up to a $70 discount on the excise taxes they pay for their license plates.
There are many benefits for those who have served our country. There are the most well-known ones, such as VA Loans and Disability, as well as less known benefits as stated above. Most states, and even counties in the states have various benefits that are available. Take some time to go and research what is offered where you live, and what you qualify for because you may be missing out on thousands of dollars in benefits that you are entitled to!