Friday, 05 October 2012 00:00
New York was the national leader in developing special services to help veterans of our armed services readjust to civilian life, and for many years Nassau County played a special role in which residents took great pride. It is part of our local public heritage.
In 1929, before the crash and the Depression kicked in, Nassau was the first county in the state to have a formal relief operation to help former soldiers and sailors in need. It was run by veterans for veterans, but it had official ties to the county government. In 1938, when the new “home rule” county government kicked into gear, Nassau was the first to have a government division dedicated to aiding veterans. A system was developed in which government worked closely with veterans organizations to reach those in need of assistance or advice, and this is the same basic model that is almost universal throughout the state and the country today.
Veterans events were core social activities in suburbanizing Nassau County. In 1920, the first county convention of the brand new American Legion had 35 attendees, who met for three hours over dinner in a little building owned by the Red Cross in Hempstead. Ten years later, in July 1930, there were 35 separate Nassau County posts marching in the big American Legion parade in Freeport. In 1934, 5,000 Legionnaires and 7,000 additional spectators jammed Chaminade High School in Mineola to hear the national commander rail against the threat of communism. After the Second World War, Memorial Day was the largest annual event in some villages. In 1949, no less than sixteen Nassau County communities held parades, exercises or services. 10,000 people turned out to watch in Rockville Centre. Over 1,000 people from 33 village organizations marched in Lynbrook’s parade. When they were done marching, Judge Norman Lent, father of a future Congressman, gave a speech about “liberalism,” a word commonly understood at the time to mean “tolerance.”
But parades, bands and speeches aren’t what many veterans really need, which is exactly what Governor Dewey said when, at his urging, New York created the country’s first statewide veterans service agency in 1945. To head it, the governor picked Nassau County District Attorney Edward Neary. Through government counselors, former servicemen could get advice on any kind of profession or business enterprise. “He can learn what he is entitled to,” said the governor, “whether it be restoration of his job, a government loan, psychiatric treatment or free employment agency.”
Edward Neary was an interesting guy. Permanently wounded in France during the Great War, he was still recuperating in hospital when Queens Republicans nominated him for the State Assembly. After two one-year terms, Neary moved to Nassau County, and after serving as a county and state Legion commander was elected District Attorney in 1937. Though strongly partisan, always the point man in keeping veterans groups within the local Republican orbit, he was also principled. In 1944, he insisted that the Floral Park VFW close its popular bingo game, which drew people from the city and even from New Jersey, because it was gambling and technically illegal.
Building from scratch, Neary hired counselors out of veterans’ groups. They had to work out office space in every county, plug into existing health, welfare and veterans networks. There were fits and starts, but within two years New York had the most advanced veterans support network in America. Some of the federal VA services were modeled after New York, which was largely modeled after Nassau County.
It is not a coincidence that the very first high school equivalency diploma ever granted in New York was issued in a grand ceremony at Hempstead High School in 1947 (to Herman Sieffert of Westbury, 33 years old). The event was used to promote the new program to veterans.
Veterans used to be everywhere around us, in almost every family. Today, it isn’t so. Many readers don’t know any modern-day veterans. It’s so easy for our politicians to publicly beat their chests praising those in our armed forces one day, and go to Washington the next day and vote against them.
In a political system almost devoid of truthfulness and accountability, something happened in Washington last week that set a new low. Because it was mostly lost in the swirl of ugly that has been carefully forged for us by forces who want us to always look the other way, you probably missed it.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org