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Luis Carlos Montalván

Luis Carlos Montalván

Posted March 31, 2009 | 07:17 PM (EST)

Bloomberg 3? NYC Veterans 0


Bloomberg 3? NYC Veterans 0
by Joe Bello & Luis Carlos Montalván

Every Memorial and Veterans' Day, elected officials praise veterans and the sacrifices they have made while in uniform. However, that sacrifice does not end when they return home to their families and communities.

For many veterans, the hardest and most enduring sacrifice begins the moment they return home. The combat load they shouldered for their country endures long after war is over.

For most, it lasts a lifetime.

This is especially true in New York.

New York has sent over 70,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and has the fourth largest veteran population in the country. Overall, there are almost 12,000 service members from the state currently deployed in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of combat, many of whom are from the New York City area.

However, six years into the war in Iraq, and eight into the war in Afghanistan, many Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard veterans have come home to a city administration that does a lot of talking and thanking but nothing, other than a breakfast at Gracie Mansion on Veterans' Day, in terms of actual, tangible services.

Ask any veteran and he or she will tell you that over the past several years New York City's Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs (MOVA) has done little or nothing to assist the hundreds of thousands of veterans in New York City, if these courageous and honorable individuals even know the office exists at all.

In January 2007, Crain's New York Business reported that New York City veterans would need help with housing, mental health issues, and job counseling and that they will turn increasingly to city agencies that are ill-equipped to handle the influx.

Two years later, that shameful truth has not changed, except to get worse.

According to a statement on the MOVA website, Commissioner Newman asserts that the office "is committed to expanding opportunities and services for the veteran community and to give back to the men and women who have given so much for our country."

However, this lofty sentiment has not resulted in any real tangible actions that benefit our heroes.

Despite Mayor Bloomberg's year-old decision to elevate the office to a Commissioner-level position, the situation for veterans has not changed. MOVA's communication and outreach to the veteran community is still virtually non-existent.

This has resulted in a situation in which veterans, returning service members and even their families find themselves stumbling through a frustrating web of city government bureaucracy, complete with aggravating runarounds and shameless stonewalling.

Even the free 311 hotline the city consistently promotes has not been helpful, as many veterans say their calls are met with no real informational assistance.

Most disturbing, however, is the lack of leadership, conviction and direction from MOVA. As a result, the majority of veterans view MOVA as an office that is unresponsive, unhelpful, and a waste of taxpayer's dollars.

New York City's veteran community has all but given up on trying to deal with MOVA. Instead, veterans turn to veteran service organizations, veteran resource centers, and an increasing number of community-based organizations that offer services not only to veterans, but to their families as well.

In essence, MOVA has become a redundant operation that can only refer veterans to those who offer actual services or, as they like to call it, "partnerships."

However, even with all of MOVA's problems, the main problem is the Bloomberg administration.

When asked for assistance by constituent veterans, the majority of our local elected officials,
including the Mayor, repeatedly regurgitate the same phrase,

"Veterans issues are federal issues, not local issues."

This response belies the very existence of MOVA, which was established in 1987 to:

"...work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs (NYSDVA), City Agencies, veterans' organizations and other stakeholders to offer services to veterans, their dependents and survivors; while encouraging innovative partnerships to ensure creative problem solving."

To underscore this lack of support, the Mayor's Office of Veterans' Affairs is consistently underfunded by the city while the state continues to fund more to the office. For fiscal year 2009, out of a city budget totaling $59 billion dollars, the Bloomberg administration contributed a grand total of $175,000 to MOVA (his own office); while New York State contributed $181,000.

The majority of these funds go to the salaries of four individuals who work at MOVA. Thus, no money is or can be directed towards any tangible services that could help any city veterans looking for actual assistance.

Perhaps the most flagrant evidence of the Mayor's negligence towards veterans is the fact that his semi-annual Mayor's Management Report (MMR), which covers 46 city agencies and organizations, does not even include MOVA.

The February 2009 MMR does not even once mention the word "veteran" and yet the report states that it addresses:

"...those [agencies] that have a direct impact on citizens - including the provision of fundamental support services to other agencies involved in serving citizens."

For too many years now, MOVA has acted merely as window-dressing for the Mayor to point to a couple of times a year when Memorial and Veterans' Day rolls around or when the VA Secretary comes to visit.

In reality, MOVA should act as a powerful veterans advocate for the city. One of MOVA's missions is to advise the Mayor on issues and initiatives impacting veterans and the military community. Yet here again, MOVA is derelict in its job.

When the ongoing New York VA Regional Office scandal first came to light last year, the Mayor and MOVA's Commissioner were noticeably quiet.

Perhaps the Mayor did not want to embarrass the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs as that might have jeopardized the city's VA's Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) funding that is currently used to attempt to lower the numbers of homeless veterans in the city. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Mayor and his Commissioner have been MIA on this issue.

With President Obama announcing plans to start bringing the majority of troops home by next year, many believe that the coming years will bring a new surge of returning veterans with real needs. These new veterans, most of whom will have served multiple tours, will bring home with them a range of issues including PTSD, TBI, and other readjustment and reintegration issues.

There are already 800,000 veterans in New York City from past military conflicts. Because there has been no leadership from the Mayor or MOVA with respect to caring for these individuals who freely chose to serve this nation and this city, how can Mayor Bloomberg or Commissioner Newman expect to address the influx of veterans which soon will arrive?

It seems sensible that if veterans in New York City are not receiving substantial assistance from MOVA, then the time has come to close shop and allocate these funds towards services that would actually be of support to veterans.

For too long, veterans have watched the Mayor's left hand work in disharmony with the right. His message towards veterans and their families during his past two terms has been long on thanks but short on substance.

Years into the wars in the Middle East, 2009 has turned into another election year for Mayor Bloomberg. The Mayor and his Office of Veterans' Affairs have done little or nothing for our city's veterans during this same period of time.

If Mayor Bloomberg has been unwilling to step up to the plate and go to bat for veterans during his last two terms in office -- but can move heaven and earth to attain his own self-centered ends -- then we veterans (and our family members) who have served the people of New York City by defending their freedoms at the cost of physical and emotional harm, deserve a better Mayor and a better candidate!

Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve. He is currently the Assistant Director of the Veterans Services Office at LaGuardia Community College and a member of the CUNY Veterans Advisory Committee. Luis Carlos Montalván served 17 years in the US Army including two tours in Iraq. He is a graduate student at Columbia University and a member of the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA).