By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY November 14, 2003 Theres a darker story behind all the patriotic speeches and flag-waving on Veterans Day.
While President George W. Bush said in an August 21, 2001 speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Veterans are a priority, his pledge of $1.8 billion for services to vets fell short.
According to National VFW Commander Ray Sisk, the Veterans Administration (VA) charges enrollment fees to the very folks who put their lives on the line to protect the nation, forces veterans groups to beg for discretionary funds each year instead of providing mandatory funding and strips disability pay from disabled military retirees.
Closer to home, Jack Simons, a 71-year-old combat disabled veteran who is nationally known as an outspoken advocate for vets rights, was guest speaker at Veterans Day services at Clarence Hoyt VFW Post 9217 of Liberty.
The VFW was founded in 1899, and the local post was incorporated on February 11, 1974.
Simons blasted VA budget cuts, alleging that plans are afoot to close veterans hospitals, slash services and move paraplegics from Castle Point to VA facilities in the Bronx or Albany.
It all comes down to land-grabbing and giving administrators incentives for cutting the budget, he said before a packed house of vets, their relatives and a handful of local politicians who turned out to honor local veterans.
Noting that the VA budget was part of a combined VA/HUD (U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development) appropriations bill that wasnt approved until the $1.8 billion VA slice of the pie was cut, Simons said it didnt sit well with the countrys veterans.
We were faithfully promised by the politicians, and then when it came time to vote for it, they didnt. . . . It makes us feel betrayed, he said.
According to Simons, when crunch time came for the senators to vote for the VA funding, only two senators approved. No senator from the Empire State voted for the funding.
The veterans need to win one, said Simons. Dont keep telling us that you want to give it to us, but then tell us theres more important things. . . . Let us win one.
Asked about the overall state of veterans affairs and VA hospitals, Simons thinks vets are getting the shaft instead of promised benefits.
Funding for the VA hospitals is cockamamie and half-assed, he said.
He said that on the homefront, vets face a six-month to two-year wait to get an appointment for treatment at a VA medical facility. And thats a long time to wait if youre hurting, no matter if you paid your dues on a battlefield or at a PX.
Simons said the VFW recently raised about $1.7 million to donate civilian clothing to servicemen and women checking out of military hospitals after being wounded in Iraq.
Seems all the government will provide them with is another set of camouflage outfits or a free hospital gown.
On April 11, President Bush visited military hospitals and reportedly said, Ours is an amazing country where a young soldier can be wounded on the battlefield and four days later be receiving the best health care possible.
But in an October 17 story filed by UPI reporter Mark Benjamin, over 600 ill, injured and wounded U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers waited months for treatment in substandard conditions at Fort Stewart, Ga.
As Simons talked about the current state of VA affairs, he said, Maybe they promised too much, and when it came time to pay the bills, the government couldnt provide the services and benefits.
Then his pride at serving his country in time of war boiled to the surface.
Weve never lost a war, said Simons. The politicians lost wars for us. They did it in Korea and Vietnam, and it left a stigma on the military. They said, Were getting out, packing up our bags and going home.
Simons graduated from Liberty High School in 1950 and spent the next year and a half working at a hometown grocery store.
Then I got a letter from my friends and neighbors saying that my services were requested, he recalled.
After going through basic training with the 101st Airborne, Simons was shipped off to Korea, where he served with the Third Division.
Eleven days before they signed the truce, they caught up with me, he said.
On July 16, 1953, Simons was painted with light and red-hot shrapnel when he was hit by a Chi Com mortar round that exploded next to him in a rice paddy in the Kummaw Valley above the 38th Parallel.
After three months at a hospital in Japan, he returned to Korea and served until the war was officially declared over.
Following careers as a letter carrier, insurance agent, a hack politician and a member of the countys last board of supervisors, Simons has been devoting his time and energies to promoting veterans issues, trying to make sure they get their fair share of the Great American Pie.
Over the years, hes served the local VFW post in a variety of positions, including post commander. Simons is currently adjutant at Clarence Hoyt Post 9217.
He has served as county commander, district commander and state commander of the VFW.
Decorations include the Purple Heart, Combat Infantrymans Badge and several Korean War medals, both from the United States and South Korea.
A couple of weeks ago, he was awarded the Freedom Foundation Medal from Sen. Hillary Clinton during a special ceremony at Syracuse.
Ive been a member of the VFW ever since I woke up in that rice paddy in Korea, he said. I made a vow that if I got out of there alive, Id spend the rest of my life making sure that veterans were never forgotten.
And Jack Simons is a soldier who keeps his promises.