At a crowded Veterans of Foreign War post in Hicksville today, outgoing Congressman Steve Israel said goodbye to Long Island’s veterans’ community, and was lauded as a painstaking champion for the region’s former troops.
Israel, who used the occasion to announce that his office had helped secure nearly $9 million in overdue benefits for area veterans during his 16 years in office, said helping veterans secure cash and other benefits to which they are entitled has been the most satisfying work of his time in Washington.
“Those most meaningful moments were with you, in this post and other posts, with veterans,” Israel told the audience.
“There is nothing more meaningful than walking into a veterans post and handing a check to a veteran who has been mistreated by the system and having him say his faith in government has been restored,” Israel said.
Israel addressed an audience at VFW Post 3211 in Hicksville that included John Byrne, who served with the U.S. Army and the New York National Guard between 1995 and 2012.
Byrne said he has twice turned to Israel for help. He said the congressman was able to smoothe the way when Byrne was having trouble obtaining medical records needed to substantiate a benefits claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Israel was again able to help after the 11 medals Byrne had earned during his 17 years in the military - a career that included a 36-hour firefight in Afghanistan - were lost when superstorm Sandy flooded Byrne’s Long Beach home in October 2012.
Israel presented Byrne with a glass display case containing government issued replacement medals, along with a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. As he did, Byrne’s infant son John reached toward the display.
“I asked him for help, and ‘boom,’ it was done,” said Byrne, who now works as a stagehand for The Tonight Show. “It’s really cool to get the medals back and be able to give them to my son.”
Israel also presented military medals to the relatives of two deceased WWII soldiers, including a replacement Purple Heart to the daughter of Harry Schwartz, who developed gangrene after being shot through the arm during the 1944 D-Day landing at Utah Beach.
“We are touched and full of emotion,” said his daughter, Ellen Brous, of Great Neck, upon receiving the medal. “We can’t express enough our thanks.”
Constituent work is one of the surest ways for politicians to get votes. But many of the veterans in the hall said they believe Israel’s assistance has been heartfelt.
“I never felt that he was doing this just to get re-elected,” said Nassau County VFW Commander William Walden. “You can see it in the families here. They called, and he was there for them.”
Then Israel, who chose not to run for re-election, moved slowly through the veterans hall shaking hands.
“Thanks,” he said, moments, before departing for what likely will be his last week in Washington as a member of Congress. “We owe these guys our lives.”