In the basement of City Hall, former councilman Jaime Vazquez runs this one-man operation, reaching out to the veteran population of Jersey City. "This is the first time in he history of Hudson County that an Office of Veteran's Affairs has been established," he said.
Perhaps the attacks on Sept. 11 have shed a new light of appreciation on those who served in the armed forces. But Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham had said that he planned to create the new office during his campaign. A former marine, Cunningham said that veterans are more likely to be afflicted by problems revolving around unemployment, housing, and health than other groups.
"I want to continue doing things to honoring veterans, but we have to deal with problems that they are going through in life," Cunningham said.
Furnished with three computers and several manuals about veteran's benefits, Vazquez caters to a variety of needs addressed by visitors that range from medical issues to employment opportunities. "We're here to help them connect to veteran's benefits," Vazquez said.
Many veterans seek medical benefits, employment opportunities, and financial assistance for higher education. Vazquez has also tried to reach out to WWII veterans, of which 1,500 die a day, to explain that many of them are entitled to certain entombment benefits, military funerals, and special plots. As far as Vazquez is concerned, these are all things the veterans earned by serving this country.
In the past half-century, veterans have not had an easy time returning to their homeland. In the Korean War and Vietnam War, Vazquez said, many vets returned home to a cold reception. During the Korean War, veterans were suspected of returning with Communist ties. In Vietnam, veterans discovered that the people they defended were not in favor of the war and did not support those who returned from it.
"We have to learn from the mistakes we've made in the past about treating veterans when they come home," said Vazquez, who was awarded the Purple Heart after his 1968 tour of duty in Vietnam in which he was wounded by a grenade. After recovering from the injury, Vazquez returned to the front lines.
The office, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, has been up and running for a month. During that time, Vazquez has found different ways to reach out to the veterans' community and inform them about benefits, services and medals that they could be eligible to receive.
Vazquez stopped into the cinema in Newport Mall Tuesday, where senior citizens can see a movie for free on that day. In front of 300 elderly people, Vazquez spread the word about his office's availability and the services it provides. He then asked how many would be interested in having an "old-fashioned USO-style dance" with a big-band act.
Many hands showed approval for such an event. Vazquez said that he wants his office to provide these types of events for seniors in an effort to create a veterans' community.
Within the first few weeks, Vazquez received various veterans in his office seeking a variety of needs. Erma MacDonel sought educational benefits that would allow her to study nursing. Because she served in the armed forces in the sixties, her benefits have expired. Vazquez said that he would find other venues by which he could help her achieve that goal. "My office is a liaison between her as a veteran and other agencies," he said.
Another visitor, Juan Rivera, came from Newark after reading about the office. Also a Vietnam-era veteran, Rivera needed help finding a new job. He had worked for an office supply company for the past 12 years and was recently laid off. Unable to find a job, he turned to the Office of Veteran's Affairs for assistance. "The information he [Vazquez] gave to me was good," Rivera said. "I'm working with the things he told me about." He posted his name and resume on a few job search web sites designed for veterans and learned about special preferences employers are required to give to veteran applicants.
Pleased by Rivera's interest in Jersey City's service, Vazquez encourages any veteran in the area to take advantage of the new office.
In addition to linking veterans to their benefits, Vazquez has also taken on the responsibility of administering all veteran-related activities that occur within the city. For instance, he is working with the Korean War Association of Hudson County to prepare for the memorial that will soon be erected on Washington Street.
Also, he is in the midst of helping the Sgt. Anthony Park Association obtain a flagpole for the park, so they can properly commemorate Sgt. Anthony, a WWII pilot who died in the South Pacific, on Memorial Day. Each year, the association recognizes him on Memorial Day and would like to make sure that it can properly honor those who died in the World Trade Center attacks on this year as well by having an authentic flagpole.