By James L. Larocca
“Talking isn’t doing…words are not deeds.”
Thank you for your service.
The phrase is spoken frequently these days, and it conveys an authentic sentiment when it comes from ordinary folks expressing gratitude to those who have endured the extraordinary burdens of military service on behalf of their country. This was never clearer than when Sag Harbor and Shelter Island and our neighboring communities came out by the thousands to honor two local boys who gave their lives in combat, and to bring whatever comfort we could to their grieving families.
But when the “thank you” comes from government officials and politicians, there is a huge and perhaps even growing gap between rhetoric and actual deeds. This can be seen in the staggering backlog of claims pending before the Veterans Administration in Washington, and in the callous reduction of veterans’ property tax exemptions by the Town of Southampton, starting in 2011.
Today in Washington there are almost 900,000 veterans pension, education, and compensation benefit claims pending, according to the New York Times, with a growing number coming from aging Vietnam-era vets. At the same time, nearly half of all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are filing for disability benefits – double the rate of previous wars. It takes an average eight months to process a claim, fully two months longer than a decade ago. The result is often unacceptably long waits for decisions, fouled-up documents, bewildering communications and outright mistakes, all resulting in extreme difficult for struggling vets and their families. Thank you for your service.
Closer to home, in 2011 the Southampton Town Assessor sent a cold-hearted letter to home-owning veterans announcing significant reductions in the value of their veterans property tax exemptions. The stated reason was an error in calculation by the Town. In May 2011, I wrote to Supervisor Throne-Holst and other officials. I had no response from the Supervisor until the following January. In her eventual reply, she indicated that the only avenue for relief would be Albany, as the problem was one of state law. She promised to pursue a “priority bill” in the 2012 session. Nothing more was heard. Under the 2011 Town changes, over eighty percent of home-owning veterans in Southampton Town would experience tax increases, ranging from under $100 per year to almost $300 per year. Small numbers, perhaps, but meaningful to vets – especially those on fixed incomes. Thank you for your service.
Most people are sincere when they reach out and thank veterans. It is unmistakable in their eyes and in their hearty cheers at parades and ceremonies on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day. And you feel it along the road during Wounded Warrior rides and other events. But a thank you followed by inaction and silence tends to cancel out the honest gratitude that people so frequently express. One way to give greater meaning to the sentiment is to demand that our government officials actually work to help veterans in real and meaningful ways. To mark this Veterans Day with real action, call or write your representative in Congress demanding better treatment of hurting vets. And call or write Town Hall and your reps in Albany and ask about that promised priority property tax bill.
For as long as the nation looks to its young men and women to carry the extreme burdens of defending the country in a complicated and dangerous world, there will be veterans of service who need not just our words, but our help. Washington, Albany, and Town Hall, in the constant competition for public dollars, each have a tendency to take veterans for granted – perhaps because they know vets often handle the challenges of post-war life with the same selflessness and stoicism that mark their service in war. Vets don’t like to ask for help. It is therefore up to a grateful nation to thank our veterans the right way – by putting our money and our deeds behind our words.
Sag Harbor resident James L. Larocca has held several Cabinet-level positions in New York State, and is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.