TROY — Tears well up in Nicole Caquias’ eyes every time she thinks about the veterans her nonprofit organization has not been able to serve.
She’ll go out to the bridges and find veterans underneath, bring them back to the Catskill Veteran Outreach Center/Utica Center for Development, only to realize that she has to turn them away because of red tape around the grants her organization received. The veteran received a dishonorable discharge, or was post-9/11, or did not have a certain level of disability — all of these are categorizations that can render veterans unqualified to received services, Caquias shared at a panel on veteran reintegration hosted Friday by U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19.
“It’s unacceptable,” Delgado said on the issue after the panel, held at the Brunswick Elks Lodge. “We should do everything in our power to not put any veteran in that position.”
The panel was organized in one of Delgado’s in-district weeks, leading up to Veteran’s Day. Delgado’s district has about 40,000 veterans, according to his spokesperson.
The panelists, all of whom were veterans or related to veterans, represented a holistic range of needs veterans have when they return from duty, from political representation to finding employment to receiving mental health care.
One of the main issues raised was knowledge within the community about the wealth of services out there for veterans, red tape or not.
“I think it’s so important to make sure that we are making sure that people who are on the front lines (helping veterans) have the capacity to build the relationships and make it easier for those in the veteran community to take advantage of these programs,” Delgado said.
For example, one of the panelists, Dean Koyanagi, is the director of the Cornell Farm Ops Program, which helps veterans start their own farms. The benefit is two-pronged: it supports veterans to become economically self-sufficient, but it also helps their mental health.
“There’s value in horticulture and being outside,” Koyanagi said. “And (veterans) have that service mission again and feel they’re working together with somebody.”
After his last community panel on rural broadband, Delgado introduced two pieces of legislation on the issue a week later. He said that Friday’s panel gave him multiple ideas for bills he’d like to explore, such as funding, but he’s already started with a bill introduced Thursday that would give counties access to federal funding for veteran cemeteries.
The Fairness for Local Veteran Cemeteries Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, would shift funding decisions from the state down to local municipalities, which would help areas that do not have state-operated veterans’ cemeteries.
Also in bipartisan spirit, Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107, was one of the panelists. A veteran himself, Ashby has a bundle of bills he plans to introduce this upcoming legislative session that would serve the veteran community by addressing health care gaps, providing legal services and creating a “Green Alert” program, similar to Amber Alerts, that would notify law enforcement when a veteran goes missing.
“What we’re starting to see is a (suicide) trend come down to our younger generations,” Ashby said, citing a study that found veterans from ages 19 to 34 were three times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian counterparts. “We’re trying to help funds get down to the local municipalities to make sure veterans are getting the services they need.”
Massarah Mikati covers the New York State Legislature and immigration for Johnson Newspaper Corp. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her on Twitter @massarahmikati.