SARANAC LAKE — Over 40 people, around a dozen of whom were veterans from several eras of wars, spoke with NY-21 Democratic candidate Matt Castelli at a town hall in the Saranac Lake Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Monday.
Castelli took notes and led the round-table discussion as veterans relayed the struggles they’ve experienced getting health care and coverage in the North Country and highlighted the gaps in veterans services here.
Veterans at the event said they felt ignored and misrepresented by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who currently holds the seat in the 21st Congressional District.
Don Sabin, of Tupper Lake, said before he came over for the town hall that morning he got a Stefanik mailer in his mailbox saying she helps 2,000 to 3,000 veterans a year.
“How many veterans here, raise your hand, if you ever went to Elise?” Sabin said.
No hands were raised.
“She’s a phony,” Sabin said. “It’s time to eliminate her.”
“Careful how you say that,” veteran Arnie Nidecker said.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way,” Sabin said.
Some veterans at the event said they felt Stefanik hasn’t done anything for them and they hoped Castelli would.
“I don’t know you. I’ve only been sitting here for a few minutes, but I’m impressed,” Sabin told Castelli.
Care challenges in the North Country
Harrietstown Supervisor Jordanna Mallach, a member of the Army who was deployed in Kosovo earlier this year, said veterans in NY-21 have a uniquely challenging time getting health care and coverage.
Because there is not a large VA hospital nearby — the closest one is in Albany — the VA outsources that care though its Community Care program, which allows veterans to get care at local clinics, and reimburses those clinics for the services.
“Navigating that process … convincing the doctor that you see that you need the care is not the issue. But the issue is … getting those providers in our community paid,” Mallach said.
Whether it is physical therapy, MRIs, mammograms, acupuncture or massage therapy, she said providers tend to lose money to keep veterans healthy, but do so because they know their services are critical.
“I feel a little bit guilty going to (my acupuncturist) for care, even though it’s approved, because I know she’s not getting paid for it,” she said. “She’s too kind to say to me ‘I’m not going to see you anymore.’”
Veterans said the local VA clinic on Depot Street is great, but it cannot offer everything.
If they were in New York City, Mallach said, their local VA hospital would offer every treatment possible itself. But here, the VA’s Community Care program doesn’t always pay specialists or local hospitals in full for care they supply veterans. Those health care institutions and businesses just eat the costs, she said.
Phil Jackson, a veteran from Elizabethtown said the VA only pays half of the bill sometimes.
Veterans also need to drive hours for exams to get a diagnosis for disability or services.
Some non-veterans said this is a problem for everyone in the area, that rural health care is struggling and it is hard to keep doctors here.
Francis Camelo, of Tupper Lake, said he worked at Sunmount when it was a VA hospital before it closed in 1965. He said this VA was a “great” facility and that its closure was a “traumatic blast” to veterans in northern New York when Democratic politicians closed it decades ago. He said it was always a busy facility.
Still, he acknowledged, veterans’ care in New York is “a lot better than some states.”
Castelli said the U.S. needs to invest in health care here and that veterans should have a presumption of entitlement when it comes to their health.
“Far too often, we’re putting our veterans in particular … in an adversarial relationship with the bureaucracy,” Castelli said.
The nature of the insurance industry — and therefore, the VA, he said — is to deny coverage because that’s an expenditure for the company. But he said that hurts veterans.
Castelli criticized Stefanik for voting against the EVEST Act, which would automatically enroll veterans transitioning to civilian life in Veterans Affairs health care. This act passed the House.
Castelli also criticized Stefanik for voting against the Honoring Our PACT Act, which is set to expand health care services for people suffering health effects of burn pit exposure after being signed into law in August.
As the VA has spent a lot of time trying to justify spending money on veterans suffering from a variety of ailments caused by burn pit exposure, they were dying, he said. The government, he added, should assume that more illnesses are caused by service and pay for treatment for them without making veterans jump through hoops.
Nidecker pointed out that Vietnam veterans went through the same long, difficult process with Agent Orange exposure and said “history is repeating itself.”
Castelli said he wants to talk with VA Secretary Denis McDonough directly about these issues.
Fewer soldiers today
Steve Erman said isolation is also a uniquely North Country problem. He’s the secretary for Homeward Bound Adirondacks in Saranac Lake, which runs retreats for veterans to gather and provides programs for suicide prevention and the effects of post traumatic stress disorder. He said veterans from around the region come to the Adirondacks for retreats.
“But up here, there are people who don’t have enough contact with people who have been through similar experiences,” Erman said. “They have trouble talking with their family members and friends in ways that they would understand what they’re going through.”
Sabin said young veterans now don’t join veterans organizations when they return to civilian life as often as they used to. He pointed out that the leadership in veterans’ groups is getting older, and if young people don’t take over their roles, these organizations might not be active in the future.
Castelli asked if there is a generational change, and veterans agreed — fewer young people put on a uniform today.
Some pointed out that the Army is not meeting its quotas for members and offering large bonuses for those who enlist or reenlist.
Nidecker said he knows it’s not a popular opinion, but he believes “the draft might also be a good idea.”
David Staszak, a VFW member and Army veteran who organized the town hall, said after he retired from the reserves in 1991, the reserves were used more than ever.
“None of us ever had even an imagination of being called up for active duty,” Staszak said. “But ever since then, the reserves have been called up, some people repeatedly.”
Harrietstown Councilwoman Tracey Schrader said her son is currently deployed with the Army National Guard.
“Where he is stationed right now, everybody on the base is reserves and National Guard,” Schrader said. “There’s not one full-time Army (member).”
She said her family is new to having a member deployed. Castelli thanked Schrader for her service, saying being family of a soldier is service, too.
Castelli wondered if people don’t sign up for the military because American society does not respect and appreciate veterans when they come home as much as in the past. He said changing this starts legislatively. The U.S. government is not taking care of veterans as it should, he said — care which veterans of the past were promised. He said this could be undermining a major driver for recruiting.
Staszak said he feels a bit offended when people say, “Thank you for your service.” Depending on his mood, he said he sometimes responds, “Well, what did you do for your country?”
Town hall attendees spent some time discussing the meaning of service.
Jackson said some people might have a good reason for not being in the military, and when he is thanked for his service, he personally says, “I’m proud I served.”
Jennifer Mott said there are other ways to serve country. Her father was a gunner in rescue helicopters in Vietnam, she said, and she wanted to follow his footsteps. But because of medical reasons, she could not serve in the military, so she became the president of the Saranac Lake VFW auxiliary to serve her country.
Erman said there are other ways to serve the country, not just in the military, like serving in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps. He said having more volunteer opportunities for young people would improve a lot of things.
Castelli felt the question they were digging down to was, “How do we define patriotism?”
He defines a patriot as “someone who serves others or a cause greater than themselves.”
Camelo said he finds it ironic that the people who rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, referred to themselves as “patriots.”
“They all should be in jail, those bums,” Camelo said.
Sabin said Castelli was not “in the service,” but in his counter-terrorism job at the CIA he “served.”