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Op-ed: Honoring our city’s veterans

BY COUNCILMAN ERIC ULRICH, CHAIR OF THE COUNCIL VETERANS COMMITTEE 

On Veterans Day, we recognize the many contributions veterans have made and continue to make to the American way of life. It’s also important to take stock of the unique challenges facing veterans and identify meaningful solutions to help those here at home and the thousands of men and women already on their way back from service.

After World War II, American GIs returned from overseas battle scared and in need, but were welcomed with open arms and robust programs to help with college tuition, health care and housing. We invested in our veterans then and their hard work contributed to an economic boom that lasted decades. Caring for our veterans was a top priority — it was good for them, good for the nation and simply the right thing to do.

But today’s soldiers face a daunting reality much different than their grandparents’ time — the VA is failing, jobs are limited, and new and unique challenges push back against their successful transition to civilian life. Given these realities, a far more aggressive and wide-ranging approach is needed to assist our men and women in uniform.

Smart policy starts with connecting vets to high-quality health care and well-paying jobs. Our GIs put their lives on the line every day to defend our freedom. When they come home, we owe them and their families the peace of mind that comes from knowing they have access to quality medical care.

This issue is largely the responsibility of the Veterans Administration, and Congress must be the watchdog, but locally, we can leverage and empower hospitals and direct providers to bridge the gap in care when VA services fall short.

While the civilian unemployment rate continues to decrease, recent research shows that close to 12 percent of New York City’s veterans are unemployed. This is a sad scenario faced by many who cannot find job opportunities commensurate with their talents and military experiences.

Despite these obstacles, we can incentivize businesses with tax credits to hire veterans and by strengthening vet preferences in the city’s hiring process. Creating a pipeline with the city’s trade unions can also place veterans in lucrative apprenticeships that pique their interests and speak to their skills.

Equally important, we need to help those veterans living on the street. Although numbers are improving, the veterans’ homelessness rate is still inexcusably high and something we all see on a daily basis walking the streets of this city. In 2009, the VA pledged to end veteran homelessness, but there are local polices we can pursue to achieve this goal. For instance, reinstating a priority for veterans in the NYCHA selection progress would provide housing for those in immediate need.

Carving out a minimum percentage for veterans’ units in current inclusionary housing mandates would also help combat homelessness.

In January, I was appointed chair of the New York City Council Veterans Committee. My thoughts immediately turned to my grandfather and great-grandfather, who both served in the military, and to the thousands of my constituents who also answered the call of duty. As a nation, we have no higher responsibility than to honor their service and sacrifice. New York City once led the nation on this important issue and we can lead again, and it starts with not only our words but also with our deeds.

Let us recommit ourselves to serving those who served and helping those who protect our freedoms that we so often take for granted.

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