With Memorial Day a week away and a half away, Tom Maher, chaplain of American Legion Post 1078 in Hillcrest, recalled how his son spent 15 months serving in Iraq as a part of the Army National Guard, returning home uninjured, but forever changed.
“Some of the horrors he lives with are unimaginable,” Maher said. “You can’t imagine some of the things he’s seen. ... That part of the world — the mentality, the society they live in, is one of the brutal places that ever existed in the world.”
Maher joined Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) on Monday in Bayside as the lawmaker proposed some changes to help veterans get better mental healthcare, retirement benefits and employment opportunities, which he said he will advocate for, if he is elected to Congress.
Citing what he considers some “disturbing” statistics, Lancman, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District primary, stressed the importance of greater benefits for servicemen and women at a press conference at O’Connor Park.
One in three Iraq War veterans and one in nine Afghanistan vets develop mental health issues as a result of their time in the service, Lancman said. Some 6,500 American veterans commit suicide annually — accounting for 20 percent of all suicides nationwide.
More than 60 percent of veterans who say they might have post traumatic stress disorder don’t seek medical attention, primarily because they don’t know what help is available or it is too difficult to obtain, Lancman said.
Half of the veterans who reach out to the Veterans Administration for mental healthcare treatment wait an average of 50 days or more for help, when the government mandates that assistance be given within two weeks. “Obviously the Veterans Administration is completely ignoring and blowing that deadline,” Lancman said.
If he were elected to Congress, Lancman said, he would advocate for more funding for the VA, specifically to address mental health issues, and for additional educational programs to teach veterans how to get medical help for those problems.
“Being in a combat environment is extraordinarily stressful and the return home is difficult and complicated,” Lancman said. “Veterans need to be able to know how to navigate the system and the services that are available to them.”
Another prevalent problem, according to Lancman, is the high unemployment rate among veterans. For vets who have left military service in the past decade, the unemployment rate is 12.1 percent, about 50 percent higher than the national figure of 8.1 percent.
“That is completely unacceptable — that these people are going overseas, putting themselves in harm’s way, fighting for our liberties and freedoms, and they come back and they have difficulty getting a job,” Lancman said.
He supports the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which, among other things, provides incentives such as tax credits for employers who hire vets. But some businesses take advantage of the law, firing the service members after they receive the credit, Lancman said.
“There are some employers out there, believe it or not, who will game the system on the backs of our veterans in order to get a tax credit,” Lancman said.
For that reason, he also supports the Servicemembers Rights Enforcement Improvement Act, a bill before the U.S. Senate, which would allow veterans to sue employers who take advantage of them in that way.
Lancman criticized the Obama administration’s proposals to drastically increase vet co-pays for medication by as much as 500 percent and another requiring veterans to pay $200 to participate in TriCare For Life, which is a supplement to the Medicare program.
The lawmaker also opposes changing the way veterans receive pension benefits, criticizing proposals that would alter payments from a fixed amount to a defined contribution system or 401(k), citing the uncertainty of the stock market. “Our veterans deserve more stability and security than a 401(k) plan,” Lancman said. “They deserve a retirement that is stable and lets them retire with dignity.”