Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan Op-Ed “Create a NY State Vets’ Department”

Posted November 12, 2021

KINGSTON, N.Y. – Yesterday, New York Daily News published an op-ed by County Executive Pat Ryan, a combat veteran, advocating for the creation of a full-fledged Department of Veterans’ Services to replace the current Division of Veterans’ Services.

Full text of the op-ed is available below:

Create a N.Y. State vets’ department



NOV 11, 2021 AT 5:00 AM


Thirty years later, I can still remember the crisp uniforms and bright red, white and blue of the flag as I marched alongside my grandfather in our local Veterans Day parade. He walked with a limp, the result of shrapnel from a Kamikaze attack on his ship near the end of World War II.

He never talked much about his service, but I could always feel his sense of deep pride — especially when marching in that parade.

This year, in parades and gatherings, we will again honor the millions of Americans who served in uniform. This is a fitting and important tribute, and one that I and my fellow veterans greatly appreciate. But it is not enough.

Here in New York State, home to nearly 800,000 veterans and their families, we have an opportunity — and an obligation — to step up our game. There are several immediate steps we must take.

We should finally create a full-fledged Department of Veterans’ Services to replace the current Division of Veterans’ Services, which is essentially a division buried within a division within a department. And we need to appoint a commissioner who reports directly to the governor. This would strengthen accountability, improve cross-agency coordination, and make it easier to access billions in federal funding. Elevating the agency will make clear that veterans are a top priority.

The division only recently got a permanent head after nearly a year of interim leadership.

This Veterans Day in particular — the first since the end of our longest-running war, in Afghanistan — we must grapple with our failures to fully live up to the solemn promise we made to our service members to, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

Since Sept. 11, we have lost at least 7,057 Americans in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, a heavy price to pay. But even more tragic is that we have lost an estimated four times that number of post-9/11 war vets — 30,177 — to suicide at home, according to a recent study from Brown University.

Based on the calls and conversations with my fellow Iraq and Afghanistan vets, I fear things may get worse. Since the fall of Kabul in September, calls to suicide hotlines have risen across the country.

Here in Ulster County, home to Woodstock, New Paltz and numerous rural communities, and where I serve as county executive, we have seen an unprecedented level of calls to our Vet-2-Vet peer support program. Warning lights are blinking bright red in communities across the country.

As I write this, bills to create a Department of Veterans’ Services are before both the state Senate and Assembly. For Gov. Hochul, it is a golden opportunity.

And now is the time. Just as the pandemic exacerbated many fractures and fissures within our society, so too did it create new challenges for our veterans. Many struggle with physical and mental injuries. The loneliness some experience, as well as the logistical challenges getting services to many of them, were dramatically heightened by COVID-19.

As it stands now, only about 17% of New York State’s veterans use the division’s resources. That’s because, as a division, the agency can’t provide all the services needed, forcing vets to go to different agencies, file different paperwork, go down the rabbit holes of different computerized systems.

A cabinet-level department would bring all the services and programs geared to veterans together. It would give the division more resources and funding, and would give it the power to coordinate with other state agencies on health, economic development and other issues.

It should also have a broader mission to provide a full continuum of care and services. Right now, the state division primarily helps veterans access federal (and some state) benefits. But it should also focus on needs such as delivering mental health services and training for well-paying jobs.

The division has seen its federal funding decline by more than 10% over the last four years. States with full veterans’ departments have managed to hold on to more federal funding.

In Ulster County, we’ve tried filling the gap, forging partnerships with grassroots veteran service organizations like the Hudson Valley National Center for Veteran Reintegration. Working together, we fought to secure funds for the Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran’s Peer Support Project, then used them to implement the Vet-2-Vet program, which has saved lives. And we built and run Patriot House, a residence for homeless veterans that provides services such as treatment to fight addiction.

But it’s not enough. New York has long been a leader in championing its veterans, and this November 11 we have the opportunity to step up. We must live up to the promise we made to our service members by establishing a fully functional New York State Department of Veterans’ Services.

Ryan, a West Point graduate and Iraq combat veteran, is executive of Ulster County.