Members of the State American Legion, meeting here for a four-day convention, strongly criticized the treatment of wounded soldiers when they return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Many young men and women are coming home with multiple disabilities, and they're not getting the help they need," James W. Casey, state commander of the American Legion, said Wednesday.
Casey, a Navy veteran from New York City, spoke at a news conference about the Legion's position on the war on terrorism. The American Legion, as an organization, doesn't take a position on the war in Iraq, but the troops are a matter of great concern, he said.
"When a war is declared, we go and fight it, and the American Legion backs the men and women fighting over there," Casey said. "But what we do take issue with is the way they are treated when they come home."
The substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other veterans' care facilities nationwide haunts the more than 1,000 American Legionnaires who are gathered in Niagara Falls for their 89th annual state convention.
"It's not right," said Paul Einstein of Niagara Falls, an Army Air Forces veteran. "The rehabilitation of our veterans is in very serious trouble, and we want to get the word out that it must not continue."
Einstein said convention delegates heard a litany of challenges facing troops returning from the battlefields, from loss of limbs to mental-health nightmares.
"I didn't fully realize the gravity of the situation," Einstein said after attending one of the committee meetings. "But I came away from there with a feeling that the American Legion is on top of this. Our people are putting pressure on the places where it can help."
The poor care given the returning veterans is only the beginning of the problem, Casey added.
"There is a critical backlog of 900,000 people waiting to get their benefit claims into the VA," Casey said, referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The department is failing in its responsibility to provide patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their families, Legionnaires agreed.
"The Veterans Administration is operating on a shoestring," Casey added.
It didn't help matters when President Bush slashed the claims processing staff by several hundred employees in 2004 and 2005, Legionnaires noted.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been under heavy fire since the Walter Reed scandal broke in February. The fallout continued to impact Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who said Tuesday he would resign by Oct. 1.
The resignation of Nicholson, 70, who has held the job for less than 2 1/2 years, follows those of several other top officials, including Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey.
Delegates at the Niagara Falls convention were welcomed by Mayor Vince Anello and Clyde L. Burmaster, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Niagara County Legislature. Burmaster and Einstein go back a long way. Burmaster's father, Dedrich, drove the bus that took young Einstein to school.
Einstein, as chairman of the Niagara County American Legion Convention Corporation, pushed for the gathering to be held here, as did the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., which began bidding for it in 2004. The meeting continues through Saturday in the Crowne Plaza Hotel.