BUFFALO — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is taking a second look at his department’s decision to cancel the National Veterans Golden Age Games in Western New York and promises to get back to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., by week’s end.
The games, which had been expected to draw nearly 1,000 veterans and pump $2.2 million into the local economy, were abruptly called off last week, just 10 weeks before their start, by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, citing potential financial concerns.
“Secretary Shinseki assured me the games are postponed, not canceled,” Schumer said late this morning at a news conference at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. “I told him that’s not good enough. I told him to move heaven and earth to hold the games as scheduled. He said he would take a look and I said just don’t take a cursory look. If there are any problems, call me or Congressman [Brian] Higgins and we’ll work it out. He said he’d call me by the end of the week.”
Higgins, D-Buffalo, was even more forceful, saying the VA could not get its story straight as to why the games were called off.
“My question to the secretary and the assistant secretary was what is it exactly that Buffalo folks failed to do? I was told they didn’t do anything [wrong]. They were exemplary. We [the VA] might have a funding problem,” Higgins said.
The excuse, he said, was invalid.
“We added an extra $2.5 billion to their budget,” the congressman said of the resolution recently passed to keep the federal government financially solvent through September.
Higgins said Shinseki claimed that Buffalo Niagara was not the only region to have the games halted. “The secretary said others were excluded. His assistant secretary said only Buffalo was excluded. They better get their facts right.”
The comments from Higgins and Schumer received strong support from Patrick W. Welch, a wounded Vietnam War veteran and volunteer leader of the games, who was present at the news conference along with an estimated 60 other veterans and local officials angry over the VA’s announcement that it would halt the games.
Welch said many of the participants are Vietnam veterans and it is yet another misstep in how the country has treated them, from when they returned home to face unrest over the war all the way to the present day.
Mayor Byron W. Brown called the VA decision a slap in the face to veterans “who honorably served the country” and a slap against the area’s economy.
Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said many of the games’ participants had already finalized plans to attend and that hotels and venues had reserved large blocks of space for the events.
“Our community made a commitment to the Golden Age Games and we are greatly disappointed that the VA does not intend to honor theirs,” she said.
In perhaps the only light moment of the news conference, Schumer produced a brass medal attached to a red, white and blue ribbon and said he and Higgins would award it to Shinseki if he succeeded in reinstating the games.