EDITORIAL: Do this for veterans

WE DID NOT always treat our veterans with respect. Cities and towns built statues and held parades, and voters elected more than a few prominent veterans president, starting with Washington. But there are people living now who remember when the U.S. Army was ordered to break up the peaceful protests of U.S. veterans.

It happened in Washington, D.C., in 1932. The Depression choked the economy. Veterans of World War I wanted a bonus promised them by Congress. Armed soldiers led by then Major and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower routed the veterans and destroyed their camps.A dozen years later, attitudes in the country had changed. In the midst of World War II President Roosevelt signed legislation called the G.I. Bill of Rights and the country officially took on the responsibility of caring for our veterans.

Even with the range of government services now available to veterans there’s plenty of room for individuals and non-government organizations to get involved. You could see that last Saturday at the Elks Lodge No. 787 in Hudson, which held its 7th annual dinner honoring veterans living in the county who have served overseas. Eighty veterans and their families were served a free meal and 60 other paying guests joined them.

Speakers extolled the service and sacrifice of the veterans, but even in the unified spirit of that room there was no escaping the complicated relationship we have in fulfilling promises we’ve made. Consider the impassioned speech made that night by veteran Al Wassenhove, a Ghent resident.
Mr. Wassenhove reminded the audience of the scandalous delays at some hospitals run by the federal Veterans Administration and compared that record to the high ratings earned by the Albany VA hospital, where local veterans are well served.

One challenge here is transporting veterans to and from the VA hospital, a task handled by the county Veterans Service Department. The department has had difficulties lately keeping its two vans–only one of which is equipped to transport people in wheelchairs–on the road.
Mr. Wassenhove was incensed that recently both vehicles were out of service for repairs. He vowed to hold the county accountable for providing reliable transportation so veterans can reach the services to which they’re entitled. He struck a nerve. A steady stream of veterans came up to him afterward to praise his remarks.

The wheelchair van was still in the shop this week, according to Gary Flaherty, head of the veterans department. He has a distinguished military record and is dedicated to assisting fellow veterans in any way he can. He was not at the dinner, but he said later he believes the van equipped for wheelchairs, which already has traveled 100,000 miles, can last at least that many more miles.

Mr. Flaherty also said new brakes and tires on the other, smaller van, will allow it to continue in service too. It has 260,000 on the odometer. He’s encouraged because county officials plan to include a new maintenance contract covering both vans in the 2016 county budget.

If this sounds like wishful thinking, don’t blame Mr. Flaherty. He’s putting the best face on efforts to make do with the resources the county Board of Supervisors has allocated for his department. At this point the county budget has no funds set aside to purchase a new van. That could turn out to be a more expensive approach than replacing aging vehicles before they fall apart.

Mr. Flaherty has explored the possibility of a grant from the state to buy a van, which is one way to approach the problem. But what happens if one of the vehicles expires before the funds are found? And how does that prevent the same problem from happening again in a few years?

A van with a wheelchair lift is expensive. So are snowplows, fire engines and police cars, but local governments buy them because they’re essential. You could argue that vans to transport veterans to medical appointments are less important because they’re not for emergencies. But what should the county do if the vans break down? Transport veterans by ambulance? Taxi? Helicopter?

Seventy-one years ago this country voluntarily shouldered an obligation to provide services to veterans. We built hospitals to treat them and the county took on the job of transporting veterans to and from the nearest VA hospital. Surely the supervisors can live up to their part of that obligation by including in the 2016 budget funds to replace the current vehicles and plans for purchasing new ones on a reasonable schedule.

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