CHATHAM — Legislation expanding access to the Military Enhanced Recognition and Tribute Scholarship was signed into law on Veterans Day by Gov. Kathy Hochul. The law was inspired by a Columbis County family.
U.S. Army Sgt. Steve Pechacek, 57, of Ghent, sustained serious life-threatening leg and spinal injuries during live-fire combat training in South Korea.
Pechacek’s daughter Briana had applied for the scholarship, which awards financial aid to children, spouses and financial dependents of members of the U.S. military who died, or became severely disabled or injured while performing military duties.
Briana’s application was initially denied. Under the previous law, the loved ones of service members were eligible for the award if the veteran died or was injured after Aug. 2, 1990. Pechacek served in the Army’s infantry from 1981 to 1985.
“No matter what you do in the service, you put a uniform on, your life is at risk,” Pechacek said. “The least we can do is take care of those who put it all out there to keep us free.”
Briana graduated from Chatham High School earlier this year. The night of her graduation she received an email from the Higher Education Services Corporation with a heading including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s name announcing her scholarship application was approved.
“The thing that made me the proudest is my daughter said to me, ‘Dad, well, I don’t really want to take this because it hasn’t been signed into law and what about other families that could use it and they can’t get it because it’s not signed in yet,” Pechacek said. “So she had that in her to not be, I call it the Me Generation. She was worried about other veterans and other families. She was very happy, but she said, Dad I don’t feel right about it.”
Pechacek said he told his daughter to focus on school and he would stay on top of the bill becoming a law.
“I was on the phone three or four hours a day, for three months,” Pechacek said. “I sent out 10 emails with 213 recipients on it three times a day. My father was a World War II vet, he always said the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And it did. I said this is absolutely not right. When somebody tells you you’re injured, or you’re wounded, at the wrong time, I was just flabbergasted. Then I was fired up; I wasn’t going to let this go.”
Pechacek said he worked with Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, who chairs the state Assembly Committee on Veterans Affairs, Assemblyman Jake Ashby R-Castleton, a veteran, state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, state Sen. John Brooks, D-Long Island, and other members of state government to make this bill a law.
“The MERIT Scholarship expansion — to increase the eligibility for severely and permanently disabled veterans and their dependents, dependents of service members deemed MIA, and more Gold Star Families — is long overdue,” Barrett said in a statement. “I am hopeful that these changes will encourage our veterans and their family members, who have already paid an incredibly high price, to realize their educational dreams.”
This was not a partisan issue, Pechacek said. When the bill got to the Assembly it passed 149-0 and in the Senate it passed 63-0.
“By removing an arbitrary cut-off date with a stroke of her pen, Gov. Hochul has significantly expanded the number of Gold Star families who are now qualified for MERIT scholarships in New York,” Brooks said in a statement. “I am proud of my effort, alongside Assemblymember Barrett, in pushing this important legislation through the legislature and I applaud the Governor for her continued support of our military families.”
The law is not going to overwhelm HESC, Pechacek said. There is not a large number of veterans his age with children who are entering college.
“Its not going to flood HESC, its 30 years ago,” Pechacek said. “Not many people that are my age, that are 57, are having that are going to college right now, they have grand kids now. So that was one thing that I had looked in on, how will it affect the HESC system.”
The fiscal implications of the law are minimal, according to the legislation. The legislation contains the number of service members who served before 1990 who have children going to college now would be very small.