By Neil A. Carousso, Special to ConnectingVets.com and WCBS Newsradio 880
NORTHPORT, N.Y. — As the sun set on a beautiful Thursday evening at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs campus on the North Fork of Long Island, a group of veterans finished their first yoga session and enjoyed dinner together before sitting down in their recreational room to watch the New York Yankees host the Kansas City Royals on television.
It was a light-hearted evening discussing the latest sports news as a distraction for the veterans’ personal struggles since returning home.
“Boot camp was great. I went in at 17. [It] toughened me up to be a man,” said Andrew Brand, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served from 1981-83.
Just moments before he offered to speak on camera about his service in the Marines, Brand was passionately discussing New York sports, including his love for the Yankees, Rangers hockey, Knicks and Giants football, and lighting up the room with his larger-than-life personality and friendly jocularity. Then, he turned serious.
“[I] came home on leave prior to going to Beirut and I got in a car accident and I was in a coma for 32 days and I was read my last rights by a priest,” Brand said, continuing, “And, October 23, 1983, they car bombed two barracks, 220 Marines were dead and I would have been there.”
A group called the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Beirut barracks bombings – a terrorist attack on United States and French service members on a peacekeeping mission during the Lebanese Civil War. It was the deadliest attack against the U.S. Marines since the battle over Iwo Jima in February 1945.
“They’re brothers,” Brand said as he acknowledged he thinks of them often.
Brand is recovering at the Northport VA Hospital from alcoholism. One day, his 14 year old daughter confronted him after returning from a bar and asked him to seek help. He checked himself in at the VA about 8 months ago and he will be returning home to his family in Sayville on Long Island where his daughter and 8 year old son, Andrew, Jr., live.
Brand has kept himself in good shape physically and mentally, exercising daily and eating a healthy and consistent diet as if he was still standing a post – six eggs every morning for breakfast and tuna for lunch and dinner. He is adamant about successfully finishing his recovery and avoiding relapse. As Brand says, “Family first.” Brand has been sober since he checked himself in.
As a Marine, Brand is trained to look out for his cohorts. He shared experiences with Army veteran Donail Sykes who is recovering from a substance abuse issue compounded with PTSD.
“I’m working on it and I’m fighting back and I’m doing well and I’m about to complete this program, but as far as completing the problem I had, it’s a never-ending problem, it’s forever, so I’m working on staying clean every day,” Sykes said.
He is returning home to New Jersey in a few days where he has two supportive brothers and two loving sisters waiting for him, hoping he takes the lessons on stress and coping with PTSD that resonated with him to daily practice when he leaves the VA hospital.
“You know, it’s an every day struggle, but I get through it. I’m getting better now. They give me a lot of training,” said Sykes.
Both veterans said positivity and sharing their experiences with their fellow vets who can relate and understand their tribulations are therapeutic.
“Prayer has helped me a lot,” said Brand who makes it a weekly practice to attend Sunday mass with The Greatest Generation on the other side of the VA campus. He then walks the World War II veterans, many with missing limbs, back to their rooms and spends time talking to them. “It gives me a great feeling inside and they’re very happy that they have someone to talk to and it’s a great experience.”
Each veteran has a story that begins with tremendous sacrifice, and often times, all they need is a welcoming ear to listen.
VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Whenever James Cunningham sees the American flag, he salutes.
Cunningham is a retired senior master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force. His 41 years of service to our nation spans active duty and Air National Guard service.
“I know the history of our country, I know what went into the first flag when it came up, and it’s always been a symbol of our country and the way that we live and I’m proud to be part of that,” Cunningham said.
Congress authorized the United States Flag on June 14, 1777, which is now observed as Flag Day.
The flag was first flown during the American Revolution at Fort Stanwix, on the site of the present city of Rome, New York, on August 3, 1777. It was first under fire for three days later in the Battle of Oriskany.
“I’ve seen a lot of flags and a lot of people who are as proud as I am and I see by the way they display it,” Cunningham said.
When the American Flag is not displayed “properly,” Cunningham politely speaks up because presentation of the flag is essential to the veteran as a representation of our republic.
Recently, Cunningham was going into a restaurant when he noticed the flag on a home next door was “disreputable” because it was in “tatters.”
“When I left the restaurant, I stopped and I rang the doorbell and the homeowner came to the door and I said, ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve noticed that flag flying there, but it really isn’t a good idea to keep it up the way it is because it’s torn,’” Cunningham said.
Cunningham told the woman that she was “embarrassing” herself by displaying the American flag in such a poor condition. “You’re not giving it the proper respect,” Mr. Cunningham recalled telling her.
She told him that she had a new flag, but she was unable to replace it herself, so Mr. Cunningham put it up for her, replacing the old flag and giving the ripped flag a proper retirement.
“I told her, ‘You can be proud of that flag now and I’m proud that I was able to help you with that,’” Cunningham recalled, with a smile on his face.
When Mr. Cunningham walks in parades with the Knights of Columbus, he marvels at the American flag and salutes the 13 red and white stripes – representing the 13 British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain – and the 50 white stars on the sea of blue that symbolizes the 50 states.
Cunningham lights up when he spots the flag like the solar-powered landscape spotlight that shines on his flag at nighttime from the edge of the bushes on his manicured lawn.
“I salute when I come home,” said Cunningham, whose children used to tease him when they were younger, but now, they understand why he pays his respects to the flag.
As he gazed at Old Glory delicately waving in the breeze in front of his Valley Stream, Long Island home, as the sun set on a beautiful spring Friday evening, Mr. Cunningham turned his head slightly, so he could still see the flag, flashed a smile, and exclaimed, “I’m proud it’s my flag.”
A Life of Service
Cunningham was discharged in July 1995 when he turned 60 years old. His tailor-made Air Force dress uniform still fits today at age 83; he proudly wore it in his Nassau County home, where he started a life with his late wife Mary, eight miles from where he was raised in Queens.
“I wish my wife were here to share this moment with me,” Cunningham said while visibly holding back tears. “We were married for 47 years, we didn’t quite make 50, but she was my inspiration, and as far as the service went, she was with me 100 percent.”
Mr. Cunningham has kept the last rose that was by Mary’s bedside when she passed 10 years ago. He keeps it in a tea cup with “Mary” inscribed in script. A blessing to Mr. Cunningham, the rose has not disintegrated. The rose and tea cup sit atop his living room fireplace adjacent to pictures of his loving family, including his eldest daughter who fell ill from a 9/11-related cancer as she worked on Wall Street and inhaled the smoke that engulfed Lower Manhattan.
Far from despondent, Cunningham is proud, especially of his country that has afforded him a sense of purpose, joy and gratitude. He keeps himself busy with the American Legion and Knights of Columbus organizations, while also serving as an extraordinary minister at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, which is down the street from Cunningham’s home in Valley Stream.
“My service life endeared me for the rest of my life. It taught me things that came very handy in civilian life,” said Mr. Cunningham.
See more stories at ConnectingVets.com
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer on Tuesday released a new report finding “pervasive” delays in the city’s contract system, particularly when it comes to human services.
The consequence, Stringer said, is that services for the homeless and other vulnerable New Yorkers are put in jeopardy.
“Thousands of nonprofits – many serving the most vulnerable New Yorkers – go unpaid for months, forced to deliver services without a registered contract. This is unacceptable,” Stringer told WCBS 880. “The very organizations that the most vulnerable New Yorkers depend on are being forced to take out huge loans, skip payroll, delaying repairs, just to deal with the shortfall in cash.”
Stringer’s report said 90.8 percent of human services contracts were submitted late for registration in Fiscal Year 2017 – half of them by six months or more. The report also said contract types across the board had extensive delays – with 81 percent of new and renewal contracts across all city agencies coming in late in FY 2017.
The report focused on Type 70 contracts, which support human services programs for seniors, children, the homeless, and other vulnerable populations. Stringer’s office found that some agencies – including the Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services – submitted all of their contracts late in 2017.
Vendors can only be paid once a contract is registered. They will be paid retroactively if a contract is late, but until the contract is submitted, the vendors are forced either to wait to begin work – which can stall projects and hike costs – or start work without the contract and take major risks, Stringer’s office said.
The stakes are particularly high for human services contractors, which execute such functions as delivering meals for seniors and providing shelter for homeless families, Stringer’s office said. The services are critical, and the contractors are often cash-strapped nonprofits with limited budgets, Stringer’s office said.
Stringer called for a series of reforms, including a contract tracking system.
“We need more transparency. We need to assign each city agency a role in contract oversight. We have to create a public tracking system to allow vendors to monitor the progress of their contracts,” he said. “It’s amazing that by the time it gets to my office, it could have been delayed for years.”
Stringer said if UPS can track packages, there is no reason that the city cannot track human services contracts.
“This is bureaucracy at its worst, and we have to smash the bureaucracy,” Stringer said, “and we’re never going to reduce homelessness if we cannot have a Department of Homeless Service agency that registers contracts on time and on budget.”
Speaking to WCBS 880 Producer Neil A. Carousso, Stringer added that his office has been in communication with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office for “many years” about the late contract issue. When asked if de Blasio has an action plan in place, Stringer said, “Well, we’ll find out now.”
NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — The number of women serving in Congress and other elected positions has grown dramatically over the years, but many say progress is taking too long.
In this week’s segment of The New Wave: Women in Politics, Peter Haskell looks at calls to get more women elected to office.
When Liz Holtzman was first elected to Congress in 1972, she was one of 16 women in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, there were none at all.
Thus, Congress was just 3 percent female.
But 45 years later, there are 107 women in Congress – 20 percent.
“We’re making progress, but too slow in my opinion, and with a lot of damage to the whole society,” Hotlzman said, “because we’re losing out on the talents of extraordinary women.”
Despite the record number of women candidates, Holtzman, 76, understands the process is incremental.
“You know, it may take another 20 years before we get halfway or more, but the fact is, ultimately, progress in this is just not stoppable. It’s going to happen,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s taking far too long. But there’s no way of stopping the progress that women make.”
Political science professor Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University thinks the timing is right.
“With the large number of retirements, what we see is that this will be an opportunity for many women to get that foot in the door, and become the incumbents that are so hard to beat,” Harrison said.
Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman said it is about more than just numbers. It is about governing.
“You need more women and you need more minorities at the decision-making table, because you need that different set of life experiences; a different way of approaching problems,” Whitman said. “You can’t, in today’s day and age, there’s no one group that has all the answers.”
Another issue is misconduct. Former New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned after being accused of dating abuse.
Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who ran for New York City mayor, said it matters.
“You know, there’s an attractiveness about a female candidate, and I think it’s because men seem to get themselves in trouble, you know, whether it’s sex scandals, whether it’s corruption,” Malliotakis said.
But more women running also means more women losing. Nearly 90 female candidates have already lost congressional primaries.
Neil A. Carousso produced WCBS Newsradio 880 reporter Peter Haskell’s multi-platform series titled “The New Wave: Women in Politics.” See the video piece of this installment here.