During her weekly show, “Tuesday Talks with Tracy,” Tracy Mitrano spoke with two veterans and an affordable housing professional hoping to get their perspectives on veterans’ experiences and to discuss what the government can do better to assist them.

After introductions, Mitrano, the Democratic challenger for the 23rd congressional district, which includes the Greater Olean area, and her guests discussed the Wounded Warrior Project, the experiences of being gay and being black in the army, discrimination in a Veterans Administration Hospital, VA rehabilitation programs, PTSD, privatization of VA services and mental healthcare.

They also spoke about LGBTQ protections and how representatives can help veterans, and they answered viewers’ questions.

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During introductions, Barbara Colt of Brocton in Chautauqua County said she served 29 years in the U.S. Army and retired in 2018.

Colt’s career began in 1980, when experiences in the armed forces were “very different” for women than today. At the time, she was 17. 

She recalled that when she married her wife in 2013, verbal discrimination was not allowed. Still, Colt received what she called “silent killers.” Upcoming promotions, job opportunities or awards were given to someone else instead of her, and she was not given clear explanations why.

“That was a way they allowed there to be discrimination towards me because I was married to a woman,” she said. “But that’s something you can’t prove, so that’s why I call it the silent killer.” 

Colt said such treatment made her last 11 years in the service difficult, especially the last six. 

Despite the discrimination Colt faced, she still said she was blessed to have served her country. 

“I loved being a soldier,” Colt said. “There’s nothing wrong with the organization. It’s just the people that’s in it.” 

Panelist John Forde works for Libertad Elmira, which gives affordable living spaces to the homeless, including homeless veterans.

Recently, an outside company called the Basino Group spent $20 million to renovate a building in Elmira. The end result provided 90 living spaces, with 20 reserved for homeless veterans. Libertad now runs the building and, on July 24, the building will be full, Forde said.

Gus Hetzel, of Wellsville said the U.S. Army drafted him in 1966 during the Vietnam War; he trained at Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Lewis in Washington and also attended military police school at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

He served a year of active duty in Fort Ord in California before he was shipped to Vietnam, when his son was only 3 months old. While serving in Vietnam, he received an air medal, two bronze stars and a Vietnamese service medal. He spent 10 years in the Army reserves and left with the rank of major.

Colt expressed frustration over government failures to take care of veterans who lost limbs and sustained other hindering wounds during their service in Afghanistan.

“Why can’t you take care of them soldiers?” Colt asked. “Why couldn’t you (care) for all those who served? I guess I’d never get that answer, but I always was curious.”

She commended organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project for picking up the slack. 

Colt also brought up her issue with the armed service’s treatment of minorities, such as black and gay people. 

“I had to bite my tongue, but I don’t have to anymore,” Colt said.

She spoke about experiencing discrimination in VA hospitals, recalling that a doctor accused her of faking injury and illness because she sought retirement after having her knees replaced.

“That was very upsetting,” she said.

However, her experiences in the Erie VA Medical Center have been good, she said.

Forde discussed the Bath VA Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Program, adding many of the veterans he works either with come from it or get referred to it.

“We take veterans that have been less than honorably discharged,” Forde said. “So many veterans are discharged, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that they’re going to wind up homeless. It’s not a guarantee, pardon me, but it just seems like an indicator that there’s going to be issues that they have to address.”

Veterans who do not receive honorary discharges cannot receive services at the VA, Forde said, and many of them suffer with chemical substance abuse issues and post-traumatic stress. Libertad takes them in.

Forde believes in the essential value of VA services for those who can get them.

“The strength of the VA healthcare system is probably the thing that means the most to me,” Forde said. “I see that the stronger the VA is, the stronger all veterans will be and the quicker we can get them from crisis situations.”

He also spoke what he deemed a primary issue in the VA rehabilitation system: the handling of COVID-19.

According to Forde, COVID-19 has prevented veterans from getting needed inpatient treatment. Online resources do not compare to in-person treatments, such as support group meetings, he added.

Hetzel spoke about his experiences with PTSD and his local VA clinic in Wellsville.

“I do suffer from PTSD,” he said. “However, it took me 25 years from when I got out in 1970 to realize what I had because, back then, nobody knew what it was.”

Hetzel stated two problems with veterans care in his area: access to VA doctors and limited staffing in his local veterans’ agency.

“We have not had a doctor in the Wellsville VA Clinic for approximately eight years,” Hetzel said. “After we lost our doctor, we’ve gone through a couple of physicians assistants, and the way it’s set up now is I have a doctor in Atlanta, Georgia, and I talk to her on the television.”

He said it is difficult to get to know his doctor, and it is difficult for his doctor to get to know him, through a screen. 

Hetzel initially had positive comments about the Allegany County Veteran’s Agency, located in Belmont and funded by the county legislature.

“They do a very good job for veterans,” Hetzel clarified. “I have no complaints.”

He took a pause.

“But there’s only two of them,” Hetzel said. “There are 3,500 vets in Allegany County and two people helping them.”

He attributed that to a lack of funds for the agency.

“It’s a big problem,” Hetzel said. “Veterans do not know what’s out there for them, and there’s nobody there guiding them.” 

Mitrano moved the conversation to the privatization of VA services.

Colt said when service members, active or not, are 50 miles or more away from a military clinic or hospital, they can receive services through private physicians. Many veterans have to get their care in that manner. 

Colt added that veterans do not often admit when they need mental healthcare. 

“Service members, a lot of the time, when they don’t report anything (about mental health), it’s because they don’t want to be ostracized,” Colt said. “They don’t want to be believed that they cannot do their job. It can hinder promotions, and you don’t get treated as well.”

Mitrano said the mental health care field in general needs growth and merits change.

When Mitrano asked if Libertad has received help from the military, Forde responded that Libertad is funded by a New York housing grant. Its residents, he added, have received help from volunteer psychologists and social workers.

A retired Air Force veteran asked the first question and directed it to Colt: “Do you believe the Army can’t do anything to protect LGBTQ soldiers?”

Colt responded that her experience as a gay, female soldier “could have been better.” And she gave a for instance: Soldiers who ranked under her did not want to listen to her because she was a woman, especially after she married a woman.

“I’d walk into a room, and they’d stop talking,” Colt said. “That’s not a good feeling because you know that they were talking about you.”

She said she hopes discrimination in the armed forces gets better, but among individuals who have discriminatory mindsets, it will continue despite rules or regulations put in place.

Another viewer asked if any veterans on the panel needed to ask for anything from national or state representatives. 

Hetzel gave a short anecdote to display how representatives can help veterans.

He said he wanted to get his passport renewed to drive through Canada to Michigan to watch his grandson play hockey. He did the necessary paperwork and sent it in the mail.

However, he did not get a response. Four days before he had to leave, his wife called Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office, explained the situation and mentioned that Hetzel is a veteran.

The next day, someone from Philadelphia pulled into his driveway and handed him his renewed passport.

“Once in a while, people in political offices do and can help,” Hetzel said.

In conclusion, Hetzel said if he had a magic wand to fix any issue, it would be to put the military in charge of the VA to decrease the politicization of veterans’ care.

He also said he would give more funding to the VA and noted that increased funding has not been enough.

Forde encouraged viewers to get involved in their communities. 

Colt said veterans need advocates to receive help. And she thanked the advocates in her own life, especially the one who helped her fill out paperwork for disability benefits.

“No matter what injury you sustained while you were in (the military), if you don’t do the process, make sure that you have every ‘t’ crossed, you will not get what you should receive for the service that you did.”

Mitrano thanked the veterans for their service and Forde for the work he does helping veterans.

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