2006-11-10 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Honoring New York's Veterans Five Years After
Commentary By State Senator Malcolm A. Smith

MALCOMNA. SMITHMALCOMNA. SMITH This year's Veterans Day is unique, as it closely follows the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

The scale of this event, and its toll on our nation's spirit, is indisputable. Rattling our sense of security, September 11 ushered the American public into an era of profound unease.

While we can all agree that 9/11 was a defining moment in our history, its relationship to current military operations in Iraq remains troubling for many Americans. With that said, even those who are skeptical of our rationale for going to war give their unconditional support for our troops on the ground.

We watched in awe as Americans from all parts of the country, including New York, volunteered for service after 9/11.

It seems fitting that just as we've honored the memory of those who perished on September 11, Veterans Day 2006 provides Americans with an unparalleled opportunity to pay our respects to those who responded to the greatest crisis in our time by putting the nation's security ahead of their own. For every first responder who risked everything in plunging headlong through a cascade of blazing debris five years ago, there are thousands of others who stepped forward when a similar sense of duty called them to Iraq.

And they haven't stopped.

We all have a duty of our own to fulfill this Veterans Day. Foremost, let us renew our resolve to do right by our veterans, especially those returning fresh from today's conflicts. Thousands of homeward-bound servicemen and women have been inflicted with life-changing injuries of war. As they move forward to rebuild their lives, every possible opportunity and resource must be provided to them.

Unfortunately, we've seen resources for veterans' services stretched dangerously thin in recent years. For instance, only after pressure from several New York Democratic lawmakers did the U.S. Veterans Administration back away from a healthcare merger plan in August that very likely would have closed the doors at one or two VA hospitals in Brooklyn and Manhattan. High-performing, high-demand medical institutions like these provide essential services to many New York veterans, a number of whom recently served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. Government must do its duty by living up to its contracts with veterans. Attempting to cut services at a time when they are most needed is not only unwise, but grossly irresponsible. Thankfully the Veterans Administration finally saw the light on this matter. Certainly state government can do more as well, like passing veterans-related legislation my colleagues in the Senate Democratic Conference have introduced over the last two years. These initiatives include bills that would provide life insurance benefits and increase veterans' property tax exemptions.

I also encourage New York's veterans to take full advantage of the numerous existing benefit programs currently available to them. The New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs is one useful resource for veterans seeking hard-earned and well-deserved benefit claims from the U.S. Government. Veterans may not be aware of the many tax exemptions- as well as employment, education and medical benefits- to which they are entitled.

For more information about benefit programs in New York state, visit the Division of Veterans' Affairs online at www.veterans.state.ny.us . The Division has counseling offices throughout the city. Individuals can call the Veterans hotline at 1-888-VETSNYS for additional information.

As citizens, our duty this Veterans Day is to thank New York's 1.1 million veterans of conflicts past and present for their service. As a legislator, my job in the coming months is to make sure we in the Senate are fulfilling our service to the veterans of today and tomorrow.

Hopefully we can repay in kind at least a fraction of the noble duty they have fulfilled on our behalf.

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