As the nation and world turn the corner on what was one of the deadliest global pandemics to date, one thing hasn’t changed: Many U.S. veterans continue to need support, whether with food, housing, mental health services, or other needs.
Gary Glick, the commander of the Department of New York of the Jewish War Veterans — which operates the local Post 652, serving Bellmore, Merrick, East Meadow and several surrounding communities — said he feels the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on veterans mirrors its powerful impact on people in general.
“Covid, I think, did a job on society itself,” Glick said. “It has people thinking. I would say there could be like a half-dozen (veterans) that didn’t come back (in person). It has dropped the attendance down — a lot of these guys, and I understand, they’re in their 80s, 90s.”
The pandemic, Glick added, has contributed to veterans losing touch with one another.
“Covid did take a toll on us,” he said. “Even when we had the Zooms, the older guys — they won’t do it. They lose touch with each other, and that’s another bad thing. The veterans are my brothers. We treat each other as family.”
The loss of members takes a considerable toll on posts that are already strapped for attendees. Frank Salamino, the quartermaster for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2736 in East Meadow, is constantly looking for new members, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. Two Post 2736 members died of Covid.
“We need every member when we can,” Salamino said. “It was a big loss when they died.”
Ralph Esposito, director of the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency, said he saw many posts struggling with the same membership issues.
“We had a lot of posts, a lot of legions that weren’t able to sustain their membership,” Esposito said. “They had a lot of members who never came back and the posts weren’t making any money because there were no parties keeping them alive.
“We lost a lot of vets — a lot passed on, and a lot never went back to their posts.”
During the pandemic, American Legion and VFW posts, among other veterans organizations, lost money — as did many people and businesses. The American Rescue Plan, a stimulus package in response to the pandemic, provided assistance to nonprofits, which have 501(c)(3) status, that were suffering. But it excluded veteran groups, which are 501(c)(19) organizations, because of their tax-exempt status.
A change was formally made by the federal government in regard to veterans organizations recouping money from the American Rescue Plan in March 2022, with corresponding local legislation passed in Nassau County in April 2022.
“(The money) is really tied to the fact that during 2020, veterans halls had significant losses because they weren’t able to rent out their halls,’’ Nassau County Legislator Tom McKevitt told the Herald last year.
When the change was approved by the government, veteran groups received $10,000 each, but at the time, McKevitt said that number could grow as the administration explored where extra Covid funds could be allocated.
Salamino said it was rough, and isolating, not to be able to have meetings for over a year. They had met at American Legion Post 1082 hall in East Meadow, which was closed.
“A lot of men wouldn’t even go to hospitals because they were scared to get Covid,” he said. “It had a big impact on them without a doubt.”
Glick has long tried to make sure that all veterans understand the benefits to which they’re entitled — and there are a lot of them across Long Island in need of assistance. Glick will frequently help veterans suffering from PTSD, some as old as 80 or 90, who’ve never received help before. Some veterans aren’t even aware they’re eligible for any benefits, he said.
“There’s 130,000 of us out here (on Long Island), and I’ll tell you right now, there’s maybe a handful that know what’s going on,” Glick said.
Esposito, who runs the Vet Mart food pantry for veterans out of the Veterans Service Agency in East Meadow, still sees many people coming for food. The pantry, which served 30 to 40 vets a week before the pandemic, now sees nearly 40 a day, he said.
“I think it’s because there are still people who are afraid to go out, they think Covid is still out there,” Esposito said. “The older people, you don’t see them out as much because they’re compromised and one sniff of this virus, they think they’re dead.”
It’s been a little harder to get food, Esposito said, but he has some consistent places that donate often to Vet Mart, including the Elmont school district, Island Harvest, Long Island Cares, and a few hospitals and supermarkets.