As we gather on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to honor our nation’s veterans, I feel privileged to share a very special experience I had when colleagues and I from the Veterans Affairs Committees in the NY State Legislature recently visited Pearl Harbor in the state of Hawaii. We are just now coming to the end of a year of commemoration marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and six other military bases on the island of Oahu — December 7, 1941 — a day that thrust a decidedly more naive America into World War II, changing our country forever. It is stunning to imagine what it must have been like to be on that idyllic Hawaiian island on a beautiful Sunday morning — whether you were in the service or a civilian — when the planes started attacking.
Most moving of the sites we visited is the USS Arizona Memorial, built over the remains of the once mighty battleship sunk almost instantly during the Japanese surprise attack. It is the final resting place of most of the 1,177 sailors and Marines serving on and killed on the USS Arizona that morning. Additionally, we toured the USS Missouri, site of Japan’s formal surrender to the Allied Forces on September 2, 1945, ending World War II; and the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, serenely located in a dormant volcano crater. We also had an extraordinary visit to a Navy SEALS training site, where some of our boldest and bravest take part in some of the most grueling military exercises imaginable.
Visiting Pearl Harbor under these circumstances, it was hard not to reflect back to my district and the remarkable 75th anniversary “Day of Infamy” exhibit recently at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, which gave a behind-the-scenes peek at how President Roosevelt and his administration first learned about and then reacted to the Japanese attack halfway round the globe. On display at Pearl Harbor is President Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech, in which he personally scratched out the words “world history” and wrote in the word “infamy” — opening his speech to Congress with “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy…”
In the spirit of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their forward-thinking support for returning G.I.s following World War II, my team and I continue to look for meaningful ways to help our returning veterans reintegrate into the community after deployment. Some of this is through legislation and some through direct constituent service work.
In September, Governor Cuomo signed into law my legislation that strengthens the enforcement of property tax exemptions for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The bill reminds assessors that the Persian Gulf conflicts referenced in the real property tax law include, but are not limited to, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Inherent Resolve, ending unnecessary confusion and ensuring that these veterans get the exemptions they deserve.
I want to remind everyone of the $250,000 Veterans Farmer Grant Fund, which was first introduced in the 2016-17 New York State budget thanks to our advocacy, to provide support for returning veterans who want to start or resume farming. Grants up to $50,000 are available to eligible veteran farmers who are looking to expand and innovate their production, covering costs that would otherwise not be paid by the G.I. Bill. The goal of this initiative is to support veterans returning to New York through work in agriculture while at the same time addressing the widespread need for a new generation of farmers to feed our families. To learn more about qualifications for this grant, check out this link:https://www.esd.ny.gov/new-york-state-veterans-farmer-grant-fund.
As an advocate for parity between mental/emotional and physical health resources and funding, I continue to explore ways we can help veterans manage PTSD, depression, and substance abuse. I will soon introduce new Outdoor Recreation Heals legislation that would provides state grants for outdoor environmental, ecological, agricultural, and other “ecotherapy” programs as a new resource for veterans and others across our state battling substance abuse, mental and behavioral health issues.
The transition back to civilian life for military personnel and their families is an ongoing process. While we have made some strides for our veterans, there is still important work to do. Whether it is continuing our efforts to end veteran homelessness, increasing access to quality mental and physical healthcare, or eliminating sexual assault and harassment in the military, I will continue to fight for our veterans and their families.
As we thank our veterans, those who served and those who paid the ultimate price for our country, I share this short prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have kept always, in her wallet: “Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that somewhere someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask, “Am I worth dying for?”