Assemblyman Robin Schimminger


military emblems

2008 Legislative Session

Dear Friend,

During this Legislative Session, we have enacted several measures that impact veterans and current members of our armed forces. Therefore, I wanted to take this opportunity to update you on these new laws and other programs that might be of interest.

Should you have any questions or want additional information on any of these initiatives, please feel free to contact my office at 873-2540.

Robin Schimminger

New Tuition Award Program To Aid Veterans

Veterans returning from World War II wanted to get on with their lives, and for many that included getting a college education. Fortunately, they had the benefit of the GI Bill to pay for college expenses. Unfortunately, combat veterans of Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan have not had the same opportunities, for the GI Bill had not been upgraded to take into account current college costs. Although New York offers a $1,000 per semester veterans tuition award through the N.Y.S. Department of Military and Naval Affairs, it too, fell short of the need. As a result, the Legislature took action in this year’s state budget by creating a new Veterans Tuition Award Program to assist our state’s sons and daughters in obtaining the education and employment opportunities they so deserve as they return to civilian life.

The new Veterans Tuition Award Program will be administered by the N.Y.S. Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) and will provide a tuition grant to eligible veterans enrolled in approved undergraduate, graduate or vocational training programs in New York State. Awards will be equal to the amount of SUNY’s undergraduate in-state tuition or actual tuition, whichever is less. For the 2007-2008 school year, SUNY resident tuition was $4,350. If a veteran chooses to attend a non-SUNY school, he or she will receive the equivalent toward their education costs. State awards will not be reduced or offset by GI Bill or Pell Grant benefits.

Veterans Tuition Award Program benefits include:

  • Up to 16 semesters of part-time or eight semesters of full-time undergraduate study.

  • Up to 6 semesters of full-time or 12 semesters of part-time graduate study.

  • Up to 4 semesters of full-time or 8 semesters of part-time vocational training.

Local Veterans Go on Honor Flight
photo Preparing for their Honor Flight visit to Washington D.C.
Assemblyman Schimminger, Debbie Mellon, coordinator of Niagara/Buffalo Honor Flight, Robert McPherson and Harry Kuligowski met and paid their respects at the North Tonawanda Veterans Memorial. Schimminger sponsored these veterans on the Honor Flight trip.
On June 7, Honor Flight departed the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport en route to Washington, D.C. Fifty-six World War II veterans from the Niagara Frontier along with 23 guardians were on Buffalo’s inaugural flight for a one-day trip to visit the World War II Memorial recently constructed in their honor.

A national non-profit organization with 69 chapters, Honor Flight has already made it possible through private donations for more than 6,000 World War II vets to visit the memorial. Although the Niagara/Buffalo group is the newest addition to the program, local support for our area veterans has been enthusiastic.

With the youngest World War II vets now 80 years of age, the Honor Flight program is an important way of honoring the past and the heroic efforts of the “greatest generation” that sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom.

Dealing with the Scars of War

Not long ago, the local chapter of the Iraq War Veterans Organization held a meeting to discuss issues of major concern affecting veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most notably, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe depression, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), homelessness, and the frequency of misdiagnosis were all matters of grave concern. Many members of the armed forces, veterans and their families are struggling with the emotional and psychological ramifications of these conditions, which often have been exacerbated by extended and/or multiple deployments.

These are formidable problems that New York State and the nation at large are facing. Hundreds of New Yorkers have been deployed, redeployed or have had their tours of duty extended in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent study by the Rand Corporation found that combat stress in Iraq and Afghanistan is causing a disproportionately high psychological toll compared with physical injuries. With each deployment, our service members encounter strains on their physical and mental health which have resulted in unprecedented rates of PTSD, major depression and TBI. Exacerbating the problem is that many veterans with TBI have been misdiagnosed, since many brain injuries have no visible head wounds and symptoms such as memory loss and confusion are often mistaken as indicators of PTSD. Of equal concern are numerous reports of increased suicide, addiction and homelessness.

Many returning service members, particularly National Guard and Reserve members, are not accessing services from the federal Veterans Administration or through the Department of Defense Tricare system. Rather, they are seeking services through private physicians or community-based organizations and agencies. Needless to say, this trend makes it important that local health and mental health professionals are adequately trained to recognize and treat the root causes of combat-related health and mental health problems.

To assure that such care will be provided, New York State has launched the Veterans Mental Health Training Initiative. As a co-sponsor of this legislation, I am pleased that we will be able to begin to address the problems that were so vividly outlined by Jeremy Lepsch, Louis Campbell, Chris Kreger, Robert Sanderson and others at the Iraq War Veterans Organization meeting. To implement this legislation, $750,000 has been earmarked in the 2008-09 state budget for training social workers to recognize and work with clients with PTSD, TBI and other combat-related issues, including substance abuse. The grant will be distributed in $250,000 increments over a 3-year period at the beginning of each fiscal year.

Parental Rights Protected for Activated Soldiers

When National Guard and Reserve personnel are activated, their lives change dramatically. This is ever so true for a single, custodial or non-custodial parent who is activated, deployed or temporarily assigned to military service and shares caregiving with a non-spousal parent. Upon activation or deployment, the military parent’s ability to continue to be a caregiver changes, and these changes should not impact custody, visitation or other rights.

Unfortunately, there have been cases in which custody actions were initiated by the parent at home against the military parent. Activated parents not only are unable to fulfill their parental responsibilities, but they cannot adequately protect their interests in a court proceeding. In order to level the playing field, legislation recently approved by the Legislature allows a court to make temporary, but not permanent, modifications to the existing custody order while the military parent is deployed or temporarily assigned to military service and cannot care for his or her child(ren) for that reason. The measure also seeks to protect the best interests of the child(ren), who will clearly be affected by the absence of the parent.

Upon the parent’s return from service, and upon the request of either parent, the court must hold a hearing in order to determine whether there has been a change of circumstance such that the custody order previously in effect should be changed, amended or modified.

Business Loans for Veterans

The New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC), a lending consortium of private banks that specializes in assisting start-up, early-stage and expanding small businesses, was created by the State Legislature to spur economic development.

NYBDC has recently initiated a new loan program for veterans. In addition to providing below-market interest rates, a unique benefit of the program is that it provides access to capital to small businesses that often have trouble getting traditional financing. Eligible applicants must be New York business owners serving in the National Guard or Reserve or honorably discharged from the military. The maximum loan amount is $150,000, and interest rates are set at the U.S. Treasury rate plus 1.5 percent.

Funding for this program is through a $5 million loan from the New York State and Local Retirement System and contributions from banks in the consortium. The loans are backed by the federal government through a Small Business Administration pilot program.

Disabled Veteran Job Measure Enacted

According to a recently released report by the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since September 2001 is 6.1 percent. That number is undoubtedly higher for disabled veterans. To make things a bit easier for disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to pursue a career in public service, the State Legislature passed legislation to expand the civil service opportunities available under the 55-c program.

This is the first major expansion of the 55-c program since its inception in 1987. Under the new legislation, the number of authorized 55-c positions will increase from 300 to 500. These jobs may be filled only by veterans of the armed services who served in time of war. Purple Heart recipients are given preference.

Veterans must be medically certified for the jobs they seek by the Department of Civil Service’s Employee Health Service. Although written or spoken examinations will be waived, eligible veterans must still meet the educational and/or experience requirements of the position.

This program has proven its effectiveness and serves as an example for employers everywhere that disabled veterans diversify and strengthen the work force.

300 Twin City World War II Veterans
Added to the Purple Heart Hall of Honor

In November 2006, New York State opened the doors of the Purple Heart Hall of Honor, a unique facility that will keep a permanent record of the service and stories of sacrifice of our state’s Purple Heart recipients. Located ten miles from the United States Military Academy at West Point, the Hall of Honor is at a wooded site where George Washington’s army camped toward the end of the Revolutionary War. It was at this site in 1782 that Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, which was reintroduced in 1932 as the Purple Heart and awarded to those “wounded in action against any enemy.”

...the Badge of Military Merit...was reintroduced in 1932 as the Purple Heart and awarded to those “wounded in action against any enemy.”

When New York State opened the Purple Heart Hall of Honor, I made a personal pledge to try to identify local veterans, especially those living within my Assembly District – the Cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and the Village of Kenmore – who should be honored and recognized at this state historic site. Early on, 150 area veterans were identified and inducted into the Hall of Honor at the time of its opening. These individuals are now part of an exclusive group of veterans whose names and actions are documented in the nation’s first permanent museum, educational center and memorial dedicated to Purple Heart recipients.

Of course, that was just the beginning as there are many, many more Purple Heart recipients to locate. Toward that end, my office recently teamed up with the Historical Society of the Tonawandas to work on this project. Patrick Barnard, president of the Historical Society and coordinator of veterans projects, has spent countless hours reading old, wartime copies of the Tonawanda News to identify local residents who served during World War II. The information he compiled was then used to identify Purple Heart recipients in the Twin Cities. With that data in hand, my office assembled the documentation and prepared the paperwork to enroll eligible veterans in the Hall of Honor.

The news clippings collectively told a story of a generation of men who fought courageously in virtually every major battle in the European and Pacific Theaters. All told, 200 Twin City residents received the award posthumously, because they paid the ultimate price in World War II land, sea and air battles. Another 300 individuals were wounded and awarded the Purple Heart. Each of our veteran’s stories is unique and poignant, and they collectively provide remarkable insight into the Tonawandas’ members of the “greatest generation.”

But there are more veterans to be recognized, more stories to be told and a legacy of service to preserve, especially from succeeding generations who served our nation. Therefore, I am once again asking that you help me continue to gather the names and information for all of those who should be registered in the Hall of Honor. If you are a Purple Heart recipient, or would like to recognize a comrade-in-arms or remember a family member, please contact my office at 873-2540.

photo Searching for More Local Heroes

Assemblyman Schimminger is joined by Patrick Barnard, president of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas (standing), and Purple Heart recipients Patrick DePaolo, Bill Young and William Wittkowsky (seated) as they review local records to identify local veterans who were awarded the Purple Heart.