The significance of Veterans Day, which fell on 11-11-11, was not lost during this year’s ceremonies and tributes. Originally known as Armistice Day, it started as a celebration of peace in 1918 following the signing of an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, to end the First World War that went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower issued a proclamation renaming November 11th as Veterans Day so as to “pay homage to the veterans of all wars...to remember the sacrifice of all those who fought so valiantly...to reconsecrate ourselves in promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
That enduring sentiment was part and parcel of the Veterans Day ceremonies that were held throughout our community as honor guards stood at attention at the rededication of World War I markers in North Tonawanda, floral tributes were dropped from the T-NT Renaissance Bridge onto the waters of the Erie Canal, wreaths were laid during ceremonies at the Village Green in Kenmore and the graceful flight of doves symbolizing hope and peace ended many of the observances.
While it is with gratitude and respect that we pause to honor those who served on designated days, such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day, it is equally important to tend to the needs and concerns of our veterans and military personnel year ‘round. Toward that end, I have had the opportunity to meet with many veterans and with representatives from veterans groups to discuss the wide range of issues affecting veterans of yesterday’s and today’s military conflicts. Addressing those concerns has always been a priority for me, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some items that may be of interest.
Should you have any questions or want additional information, please feel free to contact my office at 873-2540.Sincerely,
All too often we have seen images of protesters in New York and around the country disrupting funeral services for fallen military personnel. Instead of honoring the memory of the fallen and respecting the rights of families to mourn, these protesters have brazenly used military funerals as vehicles to advance their ideology. In doing so, they not only infringe on the privacy rights of the grieving family, but also cause emotional distress to all who mourn the loss of a loved one. While the courts have recognized the protesters’ right to free speech, the rights of families are equally important and protesters should not have the ability to intimidate and/or threaten the well-being of the family members of the deceased and others attending a funeral.
To address this issue, we in the State Legislature this year approved two measures that build upon current law and enact additional buffers and restrictions for protests or demonstrations seeking to disrupt military funerals, burials or memorial services. The first bill expands on a 2008 law prohibiting purposeful disturbances within a 100-foot radius of religious services, funerals, burials and memorial services. Under the new law, Chapter 528 of the Laws of 2011, that radius has been increased to 300 feet, and violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor.
A second measure, I also supported, Chapter 527 of the Laws of 2011, authorizes communities to require demonstrators to obtain permits from the local municipality for any demonstrations organized within 1,000 feet of a wake, funeral, burial or memorial service. This new law also directs the state to devise a similar permitting system for demonstrations held on state property. Protesters who violate a permit requirement at the municipal level would face civil penalties, the terms of which would be left up to the individual municipalities. Violators on state property would face civil fines of up to $500 for a first violation, up to $1,000 for a second violation and up to $2,000 for a third violation.
There is a time and place to express ideological differences, and funeral services are not it. These new statutes send an unmistakable message to demonstrators that New York will not tolerate individuals or groups who use the most somber of moments to further their agendas at the expense of grieving families who mourn a loved one and communities who pay tribute to a fallen military hero.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven to be the longest in American history. Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2001, approximately 2 million troops have been deployed and an estimated 85,000 troops have returned to New York and more are expected. Transitioning into civilian life has its challenges, and New York State has launched several initiatives to make the process a bit smoother.
One such initiative is the “Experience Counts” campaign. With the unemployment rate of returning veterans at almost 20 percent, it is important to assist them in getting back into the job market. One way to do that is to simply recognize the skills and training learned in the military and apply these credentials toward government-issued licenses, degrees and other workforce certifications. To start the ball rolling, the Department of Health announced plans to make it easier for veterans to obtain certifications as home health and nursing home aides if they served as a medic. Veterans with experience driving trucks and heavy machinery will find it easier to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The SUNY system will be improving their procedures for awarding college credit for educational coursework and training acquired while on active duty. Many other similar changes will be forthcoming.
Veterans seeking additional educational opportunities can benefit from the federal GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill. In addition, New York State initiated its Veterans Tuition Awards (VTA) program in 2008. VTA provides tuition assistance for full-time study and part-time study for eligible veterans matriculated at an undergraduate or graduate degree-granting institution or in an approved vocational training program in New York State.
Housing is another major concern and affordable housing initiatives are already in place. The SONYMA Homes for Veterans Program has been in place since 2007 and provides a preferential interest rate that is .375 percent lower than standard interest rates for mortgage loans. SONYMA also provides down payment assistance of $3,000 or 3 percent of the home purchase price, up to $15,000. SONYMA will now extend this program to cover active duty military residents who are first time homebuyers. On a related matter, veterans who already own homes as well as first time homebuyers are eligible for the NYS Veterans’ Property Tax Exemption that reduces one’s county, city, town or village taxes. There are three levels of benefits, depending on whether the veteran served in combat and/or was disabled. Veterans who recently purchased a new home must apply for this benefit with their local assessor before the March 1st deadline for it to be applicable on 2012 taxes.
In addition, the New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) will be setting aside up to $25 million of its housing resources for investment in affordable rented or owned housing for veterans. Also, preference will be given to income-eligible veterans through the Section 8 Rental Assistance Program, administered by DHCR.
For many years now, I have joined with AARP in sponsoring driver safety courses. This month, I am pleased to have partnered with AARP in implementing the first Veterans Promotion Program.
This first-of-its-kind promotion waived the normal driver safety course registration fee during the month of November for individuals who serve or have served in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard/Reserve or Coast Guard. Spouses (including widows and widowers) were also eligible to take the classroom course free of charge.
I am pleased that many of the veterans in my Assembly District signed up for the course that teaches valuable defensive driving techniques and qualifies participants for automobile insurance discounts.
On a related matter, legislation we enacted this year (Chapter 489 of the Laws of 2011) requires the State Division of Military and Naval Affairs to provide returning servicemen and women with information on accident prevention courses. This law went into effect on November 15, 2011.