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Advocates: Military veterans face unique stresses from pandemic

New York State Sen. John Brooks, center, shown

New York State Sen. John Brooks, center, shown Aug. 5, said, "We have to do better for our veterans collectively." Credit: Raychel Brightman

ALBANY — Some veterans of wars from Vietnam to Iraq face unique underlying illnesses exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis that are pushing some to suicide, yet their plight has been little noticed during the pandemic, advocates for veterans told a legislative hearing Friday.

“Veterans have been placed in peril,” said Thomas Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and a disabled Navy veteran. He praised the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University for “exceptional professionalism,” but said that COVID-19 also took a toll in the 350-bed facility.

“We have lost 88 veterans in the facility to COVID,” Ronayne said. “That’s just a horrific number.”

The home had no immediate comment.

The hearing by the Senate and Assembly was called to determine the particular hardships endured by veterans and their families since the COVID-19 crisis struck New York in March, and to better prepare for a possible second wave.

Veteran advocates testified that the complex, sometimes counterproductive local, state and federal bureaucracies in place to serve veterans was partly to blame.

Some veterans seeking care for service-related anxiety and other ailments were unable to get into veterans’ hospitals overwhelmed by virus patients, advocates said. The veterans were then sent to emergency rooms, which were also overwhelmed by virus patients, only to be turned away and told to get an appointment. The veterans who did get treated in emergency rooms then had to pay for the cost out of pocket because veteran benefits would only cover traditional emergencies, advocates said.

In addition, some families of veterans lost benefits if a veteran’s death certificate listed COVID-19 as the cause of death, without noting the chronic service-related illnesses, such as cancer caused by Agent Orange used in Vietnam, that contributed to the death, advocates said.

In nursing homes, veterans continue to suffer from a ban on visits from relatives that can worsen depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some sank deeper into depression because they have been unable to get a haircut for months, the advocates said.

“The impact that COVID has had on veterans is vast and definitely under-discussed, especially with talk of a second COVID wave coming,” said Assemb. Pamela Hunter (D-Syracuse,), a U.S. Army veteran,

“We have to do better for our veterans collectively,” said Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), chairman of the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs Committee. “Certainly, we recognize with the COVID situation there are very unique challenges.”

The advocates say the added stresses from the virus have increased overdoses, premature deaths and suicides of combat veterans.

“During the virus … I had eight Vietnam veterans who died since early March,” said Gary Flaherty, executive director of the Columbia County Veterans Service Agency and a sergeant major who served in Vietnam. He said one veteran’s burial with military honors was delayed for months because of restrictions prompted by the virus.

“I have at least one suicide in our county,” said Jason Skinner, executive director NYS Veteran Service Officer Association and director of the Livingston County Veterans Service Agency. He said anxiety from COVID-19, mental health issues stemming from combat and a loss of easy access to services “is drawing them closer to suicide.”