Of the six Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans attending a meeting at the last week, three of them had traumatic brain injury, one had a fractured skull and another was homeless.
And all suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, said William Nazario, commander of Chapter 21 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, chairman of the Hudson Valley Veteran's Committee and a Cortlandt resident.
The six young men showed up unannounced at Nazario’s monthly Purple Heart meeting, seeking advice and answers from their older counterparts.
“It was like we knew each other our whole lives,” said Nazario, who is well known for his persistent efforts on behalf of veterans. “They feel more comfortable speaking one on one with another veteran. We have endured the fire, so we know.”
As the Memorial Day weekend falls upon us, many people have been wrapped up thinking about the best way to spend time in front of a grill or on the beach. But, to people like Nazario and the group he met with last week, “every day is Memorial Day.”
The six young men represent one of the biggest issues for veterans in the Hudson Valley area, and the county — a dire need for better services. New York is home to approximately 1 million veterans, and more than 720,000 are not receiving health care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to , U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
For the last few years, Nazario, Peekskill and Cortlandt officials and county legislators, the VA's plans to lease 160 acres of the 61-year-old Montrose VA hospital to private developers.
Opponents of the plan say that services have been dwindling in recent years, even though the need for services grows.
“The young guys don’t have a voice yet,” Nazario said. “For the most part they don’t want to be involved with the bureaucracy. They are no different from us that were in Vietnam.”
Nazario said that men and women returning home from war often feel they get the runaround and lose trust in the system. They need adequate services to treat PTSD, TBI and even sexual trauma that is becoming more common in women and men of war, according to the VA.
The VA Department reports that experts believe PTSD occurs in about 11 to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In addition, homelessness is a rising issue among returning service members.
The VA estimates there are 107,000 homeless veterans every night in the United States. Most are men and about 5 percent are women veterans. Many also suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse and other maladies.
A recently released VA PTSD smartphone application to help sufferers learn about and track their symptoms has been downloaded by more than 5,000 people. The VA touts it as a success, saying professionals have sent positive reviews and user report it has helped with their tracking.
"Using technology for these kinds of things is all great and good," Nazario said. "But if the VA was in earnest helping veterans then they would stop the insanity of cutting services.”
If the VA increased services rather than cut or sold the Montrose hospital’s land, Nazario says that more homeless veterans could live there and learn important job skills. Even now, some World War II veterans still live at the Montrose facility.
The Montrose VA is rated number one in the country for PTSD treatment, Nazario said. Town of Cortlandt Supervisor Linda Puglisi reflects Nazario's sentiment.
"The Montrose VA should be a hub for vets," Puglisi said. Puglisi, Nazario and other opponents of the VA's leasing plans say the hospital should grow and become a facility that promotes the physical and mental health of our veterans. They say this would serve the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans’ best interests, considering that New York State has one of the nation’s highest veteran populations.
Today, a VA spokeswoman confirmed what spokeswoman Nancy Winter told Patch in January — that no changes would be made at the Montrose location this year, but they were still considering private development proposals.
“All is quiet,” Nazario said. “But we are watching the VA very closely.”
Nazario and Congresswoman Nan Hayworth are making efforts to speak with General Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
“We think he would understand what the deal is,” Nazario said. “He has been at the top and has probably been given misinformation.”
Nazario's passion to save the Montrose VA Hospital is palpable. This Memorial Day Nazario will be attending ceremonies and remembering lost service members with his friends and family. But Monday marks no summer vacation for his efforts to save services for his fellow veterans, young and old.
"I will continue to fight until I can't fight anymore," Nazario said.
To volunteer or give to the Montrose VA Hospital click here.