As the American Legion Department of New York annual convention continued in downtown Buffalo on Friday, delegates listened to New York's second-in-command, who reached out especially to Vietnam-era veterans.
Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul says New York State is working to assist an estimated 600,000 veterans, as well as an estimated 20,000 active service members based out of Fort Drum, but the state has a lot of work ahead to ensure those who served get the health care and chance for employment they need.
Hochul especially reached out to veterans who served in Vietnam, or those who served in other roles during that era. Noting that her uncles were among such veterans, Hochul acknowledged the "wrong" treatment put upon returning veterans, from being spat upon at airports to other public scorn.
Some, as a result, didn't necessarily take advantage of all the services available to them.
"I was very surprised, as a member of the Armed Services Committee in Congress, to learn how few veterans took advantage of the veterans hospital services," said Hochul, who previously served in the House of Representatives. "These people are specially trained to deal with the unique circumstances they dealt with, particularly in the mental health area or the physical needs they may have if they'd been wounded in conflict."
When asked about Hochul's remarks, local delegate Paul Stewart expressed positive feedback.
"When we cam home, we felt like the enemy," said Stewart, who served in air intelligence out of Germany during the Vietman era. "That's why it was nice to have the American Legion. I could go down there, talk to friends, feel like I'm wanted."
But some in attendance say while they appreciated the remarks, the old wounds will never entirely heal.
"There's an old saying you can right a wrong, but in this instance you can't," said Andrew Booth, a delegate from Levittown. "It's with the Vietnam vets. I happen to be one. It will be with me for my life. When they bury me, it will still be in my heart."
But Booth added a thought for more recent veterans: Vietnam veterans have a pact to ensure that what happened to him and his peers would not happen to newer generations of veterans, those who served in Desert Storm and more recent operations.
Newer veterans as well as active service members have their own concerns, not just for health care but also for economic security. Hochul, again recalling her days in Congress, learned about those concerns during a visit with troops in Afghanistan.
"I asked them what their biggest concerns and fears were. It was coming home to the United States and not getting a job," she said.
As Hochul told an audience of delegates, "We owe you. We owe you for the rest of your lives."
The convention wraps up in Buffalo on Saturday.