Long Islanders will move into key committee chairmanships in the State Senate next week, as Democrats prepare to take control of the chamber for only the third time in the past 50 years.
After being tapped initially for the chairmanship of the Mental Health Committee, Seaford Sen. John Brooks will instead chair the Veterans Committee. Other lead assignments include Sen. Todd Kaminsky, of Long Beach, Environmental Committee; Sen.-elect Anna Kaplan, of North Hempstead, Commerce Committee; and Sen.-elect Kevin Thomas, of Levittown, Consumer Protection Committee.
Brooks said he felt he was playing catch-up to a certain extent. “I was the ranking member on Mental Health,” he said, “and we spent several weeks preparing for that.” But because Brooks is a veteran himself, he seemed a natural choice to head that committee. His only request of the Democratic leadership was that he retain his seat on the Mental Health Committee.
“Nassau and Suffolk counties have the biggest concentration of veterans in the state” — more than 180,000, Brooks said. “And they’re one of the most underserved populations.”
In preparation for the new session, which is slated to begin on Monday, Brooks assembled a group of stakeholders to help set legislative priorities. They included Frank Amalfitano, president and CEO of United Veterans Beacon House in Levittown; Ralph Esposito, director of the Nassau County Veterans Agency; Morris Miller, president of United Veterans of Nassau County; Air Force veteran Eva Pearson; Fred Sgango, executive director of the Long Island State Veterans Home at SUNY Stony Brook; and senior executives of Long Island Cares.
“If you think about the puzzle of serving the veterans, everybody [at the meeting] had a different piece,” Brooks said of the session, which he described as very productive.
He identified three key areas where he felt veterans were most in need of assistance: health, employment and housing.
Health issues — including mental health — headed the list, Brooks said. “We use citizen soldiers so much,” he said. “One day they’re trying to stop people from killing them; the next day, they’re helping an old lady across the street.” And multiple deployments exacerbate the disequilibrium, Brooks added. Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population, according to a U.S. General Accountability Office report.
Veterans also experience higher-than-average difficulty accessing treatment, because of the stigma in the military stemming from mental health issues and a fear of appearing weak. As well, many must travel long distances and put up with significant delays in seeking all types of health care.
In addition, service-related health issues are significant. Traumatic brain injury and loss of limbs have become increasingly common among combat veterans — and veterans of earlier conflicts have unusual health issues of their own, Brooks said. “Vietnam veterans were exposed to Agent Orange,” an herbicide containing the carcinogen dioxin that was used widely during the war. “As those veterans age, they’re showing increased signs of the effects of exposure,” he said.
To address some of these needs, Brooks said, he hopes to establish a veterans home in Nassau County, similar to the Long Island State Veterans Home at SUNY Stony Brook. “It’s really a wonderful facility, but access to the programs is limited to veterans who live within 50 miles,” he said, adding that even without the restriction, many veterans would have problems with transportation. The home offers residential care for disabled veterans, but it also has a full range of outpatient and day programs.
On the employment front, Brooks hopes to create what he calls career fairs. “We’ve seen veterans job fairs, where employers come in, maybe talk to veterans, give them their card and tell them to send a resume,” he said. “Some of them don’t have a resume. Some of them don’t know how to put a resume together. It hasn’t been part of their experience up to then.” In
any case, many of the jobs are low-paying, without much chance for advancement.
The senator outlined an alternative. “We’d match up veterans and their skills with companies that can really use those skills and can offer careers,” he said. “[Veterans] aren’t just getting a minimum-wage job.” In addition to help with preparing resumes, veterans would be coached on interview techniques and how to present themselves to potential employers.
“We want to start the program in Nassau and Suffolk,” Brooks said, “and if it’s successful, we’ll expand it to the rest of the state.” He added that a successful program could be expanded to include other populations in addition to veterans.
Brooks also voiced concern for the children of reservists who have been deployed — an increasingly common situation since 9/11. “They get called up for active duty, get shipped out and are gone maybe six months, a year,” he said. “It has an impact on the family, and especially on the children.” Children dealing with the stress of having an active-duty parent often have difficulty in school, he said, but schools are unaware of the circumstances.
“Maybe the children see something on the news that upsets them,” Brooks said. “Maybe their parents missed their Skype call.” His bill, introduced in the last session of the Legislature, would require that schools be notified about children whose parents are on active duty. “We were in the minority last year, and it never came to the floor,” he said. “We have a good chance of passing it this time.”
Finally, Brooks spoke of the need for affordable housing for veterans. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 11 percent of all homeless people are veterans. That translated to nearly 10,000 homeless veterans in New York in 2017. “There’s a great need for both temporary and permanent housing for veterans,” Brooks said. He has proposed rehabilitating the “boatload of zombie houses” in Nassau and Suffolk counties left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and making them available to veterans.