October 19, 2021

Cortland vets office gets new director

Cortland County Seal

It was 1 p.m. Friday when quiet settled over the Cortland County Veteran Affairs Agency.

“I’m surprised it’s been this quiet,” said Thomas Tedesco.

He had been fielding calls nonstop since he walked in the door at 8:30 a.m. A woman needed help with paperwork for benefits for her husband, who has dementia. A man needed paperwork sent to Florida to get a fishing license.

Tedesco had been sworn in the day before as the Cortland County director of veteran affairs following a unanimous vote by the Cortland County Legislature.

The former veterans service officer, Art Timmins, quit in August. His post was temporarily filled by volunteer Carl Bullock, who retired from the job in 2018 after 19 years of service.

Tedesco, 54, lives in Cazenovia, but is looking for a house in the county. He is a former Navy chief petty officer and served 20 years as a cook, including being in the first Gulf War, part of the second Gulf War and several smaller conflicts in the Mediterranean Sea from 1983 to 2003. He was stationed on a number of ships including the USS Saratoga, USS Nimitz, USS Coronado, USS Puget Sound and USS Eisenhower.

Tedesco, besides being the veterans affairs director, will also be its counselor role after the Legislature adopted a 2020 budget that cut the department’s funding in half and eliminated the services counselor position. Harvey Borchardt, who had also applied for the director position, had been filling the role of services counselor.

Tedesco isn’t trying to fret over everything that needs to be done. He started coming to the office in November so Bullock could train him.

He keeps in mind what Bullock told him before leaving.

“He says to me ‘You know I know you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed right now, but I just want you to know it took me about three years to learn this job,’” Tedesco said.

Becoming the director wasn’t even on Tedesco’s radar until several months ago.

His wife, who had been in the Navy a little more than five years, was training with the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina when she came into contact with contaminated water.

Years later, when she had leukemia, she learned of the contamination.

Tedesco and his wife fought with the paper work for five years to get full coverage Veteran Affairs for her treatment. That was 2017. She died in January 2019.

The process, and the experience, inspired Tedesco to help other veterans.

At first his friend, Madison County Veteran Services Director Ron Raymer, asked if he wanted to apply to be the veteran services counselor in Madison County. Tedesco took him up on the offer to apply but ultimately wasn’t picked.

Norm Stitzel, chaplain of Veteran Search and Rescue, who had helped Tedesco and his wife through her battle, suggested Tedesco apply to be the director in Cortland County.

Tedesco admits at first he thought it was a far-fetched idea.

“I said I didn’t even do the veteran service counselor part,” he said. “I said I don’t know if I can do that or not.”

About a month later, he changed his mind.

“Nobody knows everything right away when they get into this kind of job,” he said. But he has people like Bullock and Raymer to fall back on.

“I’ll always have his (Bullock’s) phone number if I need anything,” Tedesco said. “I’ve called him a couple times this morning, but he calls me, too, to make sure everything is going all right.”

Tedesco said his immediate goal is to get to know all the veteran groups in the area and continue doing what the office was meant to do — help veterans.

“Overall, the Cortland office has been outstanding,” said Frederick Landley, the Cortland County commander of the American Legion.

He said he believes it will remain that way with Tedesco at the helm.

“I met him briefly through Carl, I think he’ll do a good job,” he said. “I know the workload is a lot and there’s more vets coming home every day.”