January 20, 2022

Learning from fellow vets

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Cortland County Veterans Service Agency Director Tom Tedesco organizes freebie packs, business cards and resource pamphlets on a table at the Marathon American Legion Post 617.

Sitting in folding chairs Saturday, around tables at the Marathon American Legion Post 617, veterans chatted about their experiences and struggles.

Legion Commander Kevin Arnold organized the veteran’s counseling forum and workshop to educate veterans and their families of their rights and get them connected with people who understand what they’ve gone through.

Arnold invited veterans from other American Legion posts, veterans’ service organizations and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to share their resources and knowledge. About a dozen showed up through the afternoon.

“These guys were really informative, telling what they know and talking about how to get in touch with somebody, what they need to do if they have a problem, and what benefits they may be entitled to as veterans,” Arnold said.

Mike Root, a Marine Corps veteran who served during the Gulf War, said coming to the workshop was helpful now that he’s looking into veterans’ benefits.

“I was just trying to check how to apply as a veteran — I haven’t applied for help or anything yet, so I was looking to see what was even available,” Root said. “I learned more just sitting around the table afterward and talking to the other veterans who do have benefits. Learning what they went through and how they did everything was really helpful.”

Even Mike McDermott of Homer, a former New York State American Legion commander, said he learned something new Saturday.

“I get questions all the time, and if I don’t know the answer then I call these guys,” McDermott said. “Sometimes it’s about money, like what happens when I die? Who’s going to take care of my spouse? And veterans have to know these things.”

When someone is discharged from the military, there’s very little hand-holding or guidance with paperwork and veterans’ services applications, McDermott said.

The biggest piece of advice McDermott has for veterans is to hold on to their form DD 214. This form verifies a service member’s proof of military service and is issued as a certificate of release or discharge.

“When you come home, go straight to the courthouse and get the 214 notarized so they have a copy there forever,” McDermott said. “If your husband, wife or kids can’t find your stuff, then you can’t get benefits, you can’t get a military funeral.”

Cortland County’s Veterans Service Agency Director Tom Tedesco said his goal is to help veterans who are looking for benefits, help to file their paperwork and connect them with resources like mental health services. Kyle Milk, a certified peer specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, drove down from Syracuse to talk to the veterans about support for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Anything to help the veterans is important, but PTSD is something a lot of guys don’t want to admit to,” said Richard Price, a Navy veteran and commander of the New York 6th District American Legion. “You can’t force them to talk about it or seek help, they’ve got to make the decision.”

Price said he’s found that talking to fellow veterans about his struggles and PTSD triggers is the best therapy there is. “If it wasn’t for these guys and the American Legion, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” Price said.

Arnold and Tedesco chimed in that there’s a brotherhood among veterans and service members.

“That’s what people miss once they get out,” Tedesco said.