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Biden signs Suozzi-sponsored bill to honor Harlem Hellfighters

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room

President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. Credit: AP/Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed into law two measures sponsored by two members of Long Island’s congressional delegation — each focused on a particular group of veterans.

Biden signed off on awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to the Harlem Hellfighters — a predominantly Black regiment that fought overseas during World War I — many of whom hailed from Long Island. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) was the lead sponsor of the measure to posthumously honor the group.

The president also signed into law a measure co-sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) that would create a $10 million pilot program to connect disabled veterans grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder with service dogs.

The measure to honor the Harlem Hellfighters has been years in the making for the families of the soldiers — at least 40 of the men came from the Sea Cliff, Locust Valley, Oyster Bay and Glen Cove area.

The men were deployed overseas in 1918, but the U.S. Army assigned them to fight alongside the allied French Army, largely because many white U.S. soldiers at the time refused to fight side by side with Black soldiers. The Army refused to issue the regiment weapons, and instead the French provided the men with gear, although they continued to wear the U.S. uniform.

The fighters were hailed as heroes by the French, who awarded the unit with several commendations for their 191 days in battle, but they returned to the United States without fanfare to face segregation and racism.

"There's no reason that the Harlem Hellfighters who did so much in World War I, the most active regiment in all of World War I, shouldn't be as well known as the Tuskegee Airmen are to World War II," said Suozzi in an interview with Newsday, referring to the nation’s first Black military aviators. "It's very exciting to be a part of correcting this historic injustice."

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan) whose district includes parts of Harlem, served as a co-sponsor of the measure and attended the Oval Office signing ceremony alongside Suozzi. The measure, which passed with bipartisan support in the House in June and unanimously in the Senate this month, was backed by New York’s Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand in a statement said the honor was "long overdue" and said the fighters displayed "the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice."

Debra Willett, granddaughter of Sgt. Leander Willett of Oyster Bay, who served with the Hellfighters, said in an interview with Newsday that she hoped the congressional recognition would draw more attention to the regiment.

"It might actually stir something in a student's mind," said Willet, who works in the Special Collections Department of Hofstra University’s library. "It will also probably give students of color a little bit of pride … they’ll hopefully stand up a little bit straighter, and smile a little bit brighter knowing what their culture, what their people did to make this country so great."

The congressional medal will eventually be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

"It's another kind of victory parade than the one they received 100 years ago," said Kevin Young, the museum's director, referring to a parade held in Harlem in February 1919 to welcome the regiment home.

Rice served as the lead co-sponsor of a bill known as the "PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act," which calls on the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a five-year pilot program that would provide wounded veterans with a service dog to train and ultimately adopt. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) was the lead sponsor of the bill that passed the House with bipartisan support in May and through a voice vote of the Senate this month.

"Service dogs are a proven resource for people suffering from a wide array of mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which so many of our veterans struggle with," Rice said in a statement. "With an estimated 20 veterans dying every single day by suicide in this country, this bill won’t just improve lives, it will save them."

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