At one point, one of the biggest fears Marines from New York had was coming back home and not finding a job.
“I had a chance as a member of the Armed Services Committee to spend some time in Afghanistan,” said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. “That is one godforsaken country. It looks like a lunar moonscape when you land there. It’s colorless. It’s devoid of any kind of life and optimism. It’s a depressed setting and we have people going over there over the past decade time and time again and they serve. They get on those planes and land there and fight for us.
"It broke my heart one morning when I was on one of the bases in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, surrounded by a bunch of Marines and I asked them, and these were all New Yorkers, and I asked them, 'What’s your biggest fear?' ”
And they were out there with the Taliban just over the hills and the committee having “a bit of excitement” when they were landing, and her thought was that their biggest fear would be the enemy out there. Yet, Hochul was wrong. At a time when the unemployment rate was 20 percent for returning veterans, the Marines feared coming home and not being able to find a job.
The lieutenant governor spent the day Tuesday visiting different aspects of Wyoming County; from the VFW Post and Jim Youngers Farm in Arcade; to Drasgow’s Machine Shop in Gainesville; to a tour of the new Business Ag Center followed by a stop for ice cream at Yummies in Warsaw. Hochul addressed the crowd of approximately 30 veterans and senior citizens at the VFW in Arcade.
“When I lost and went back into the private sector, I felt like something was missing,” Hochul said. “I really lost that sense of purpose when you get to represent a community and you move away from it. Now that I am back, I want to really stay connected and talk to you about the governor’s priority when it comes to our seniors and our veterans.”
When Hochul became lieutenant governor, she traversed every corner of the state from the farthest point in Long Island to a recent fishing trip up at Lake Massena near the Canadian border. Yet, being back to a place where she “doesn’t need a pat to get around” is a good feeling for Hochul, as she put it, a homecoming.
“I’m here because the governor asked me to cover the state,” Hochul said. “Not because I want to put a lot of miles on my car, but it’s important that we stay connected with the people who put us in office. I feel very strongly about that.”
Last week Hochul represented Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a statewide convention for veterans. Looking around the crowd, she noted the veterans represented people of all ages and it brought back memories of her five uncles who served in Vietnam when she was a little girl.
“It was a hard time for my grandma and grandpa to watch the news because we were terrified that we’d see something happen to one of their sons or my uncles,” Hochul said. “That has always been seared into my memory. But something that bothers me, something that I carried with me from when I was a little girl was when those veterans came back home after serving in Vietnam, they didn’t get the heros' welcome they deserved. My uncle once told me that when he came back, landing at the airport in San Francisco, protesters spat on him because he wore the uniform. That happened in our country.
"But I am so proud that we have come full circle; that when we now see our veterans, we immediately say we 'Thank you for your service. We know you sacrificed, we know your family sacrificed.' And we don’t take for granted the freedoms that we enjoy, the flag that we proudly salute, because of those veterans who fought to keep us free -- and shame on us if we don't take care of them when they come back home.”
According to Hochul, state government realizes that when people are sent overseas, whether it’s recent service or four decades ago, it doesn’t matter, “they are ours and we have a responsibility for our veterans.”
“They put their lives on the line for all of us; so it’s important that we have strong services that take care of the needs of our veterans, whether it’s housing or health care or helping you get your veteran's check or help getting your claims processed quicker,” Hochul said. “Even if the federal government is dropping the ball, our state government is going to be there to fight for you.”
So much so, that Gov. Cuomo put together a strike force for anyone who has trouble with veterans services. According to Hochul, the governor and legislature want to make sure they are treated with respect and the dignity they deserve. If they’ve got problems, they’re “our” problems, too.
“People come back very different from when they left,” Hochul said. “And I’m not talking about just the recently returning veterans. I was in another county a couple of weeks ago and one gentleman said ‘This is my brother over here. He’s over 90 years old. He served with Patton. He did six campaigns, but he won’t talk about it.’ I walked over to him and put my arm around him and said, 'Tell me what your experience was, I want to thank you for your service.' He said, ‘I can’t talk about it because I came home and my friends didn’t.’
"People carry that their entire lives. He was a teenager, he’s in his 90s now and he still carries that with him. We can’t forget that. We can’t forget that people who serve see things and experience things that we need to have an appreciation for as they integrate back into society; whether it’s from five decades ago, six decades ago or just this past year.”
There are approximately 3,100 veterans in Wyoming County, 900,000 in New York, with approximately 600,000 on active duty.
“We have a good population of veterans in New York,” Hochul said. “You know what that says to me? We’re patriotic. We are a patriotic community. Whether you were drafted and you served, or you volunteered and served, people in these parts are very patriotic toward their country and that means something very special to me. I respect that.”
Hochul also spoke about the upcoming anniversary of Medicare.
“Who would have thought, 50 years later, that this has been one of the most successful programs in our nation's history,” Hochul said. “Back when it started, 35 percent of our nation's seniors lived in poverty simply because, when they got older and had health care needs or needed a surgery, it took every bit of their savings. People who worked hard and paid their dues all their lives were left out there hanging.”
While today Medicare is weaved into the fabric of our lives, it wasn’t so 50 years ago.
“It was controversial in the past,” Hochul said. “There were lawsuits to stop it because people thought it was socialism. I’m glad we have it. I’m not quite there yet, but I do have an AARP card, so I know I’m getting closer and I want to make sure it’s there. It’s such an important program.”
Although Congress has talked about turning Medicare into a voucher program, government officials have stated plainly “don’t mess with Medicare.” According to Hochul, you don’t mess with something that works. Yet, there are many other ways seniors that are falling through the cracks can be helped.
“One area of vulnerability is our caregivers,” Hochul said. "A lot of people don’t make much money and I’m not sure we are always getting the highest level of care from people who are home health-care aides. Some are outstanding and some are like family, but we need to up the standards.
"We need to make sure that when someone doesn’t need to be in a hospital or nursing home they can be taken care of after surgery and recover at home. That’s the best place for them, less chance for infection, and better chance for recovery. We have to make sure we have high quality caregivers at home. There are a lot of issues out there with our veterans and our seniors. I want you to know you have a strong ally here.”
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