It was just after 10:30 a.m. when the Puerto Rico Veterans Advocate Agustín Montañez addressed the public as part of Memorial Day events and was interrupted by a man from the public.
“They have done nothing. I say it that way because that’s the way it is, and the truth is never written, the truth is told,” claimed Víctor Manuel Rodríguez Sánchez, a 92-year-old veteran from Morovis.
“Years don’t matter. What matters is veterans anguish,” the man added, as he was being removed from the place by a group of people who tried to calm him, telling him that his claims would be addressed.
He alleged that – on occasions – the federal Department of Veterans Affairs has not given him his medications “because there are none.” His daughter has been denied services, while his brother – a Korean War veteran – died last week without receiving “anything.”
The man spoke for several minutes. Meanwhile, Montañez and Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares addressed the public from the stage. It was the director of Puerto Rico’s National Cemetery, Juan Daniel Nieves, who offered to respond to the man’s claims.
Rodríguez Sánchez’s story reflects the harsh reality of thousands of veterans who, because they live on the island, do not have access to the same health services as veterans living in the mainland.
The governor recognized the veterans’ claims. He assured that his aspiration is to improve services for that population.
“I know that we can do more, and that is our commitment, to continue looking for mechanisms not only monetary but that also denotes the respect and appreciation that our society feels for the military,” he said.
According to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA), in Washington D.C., more than 200,000 Puerto Rican soldiers have participated in U.S. wars since World War I.
The Veterans Affairs Department estimates there are 103,921 veterans on the island. Reports indicate that 80 percent have served on the battlefronts.
The governor said that to defend the legacy, they should strive every day for that “principle of equality that is so clear on the battlefield. We will be battling tirelessly to expand that legacy.”
The governor said Puerto Rico’s territorial condition is one of the main causes for the limitations veterans face in receiving medical services.
“Why should veterans who fought shoulder to shoulder with other veterans living in the mainland be treated differently? Unfortunately, it is because of our territorial and colonial condition,” Rosselló Nevares said.
The Tricare Prime health plan, which is not available to soldiers, veterans and their dependents in Puerto Rico, is an example of that disparity. However, within the package of measures proposed by Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, there is a piece that would make enrollment accessible on the island.
Tricare Prime would allow them to receive services through different health insurance coverages.
“As long as that (Puerto Rico’s territorial situation) cannot be resolved, we will always have inequities that come from the areas of health, education, and the right to vote,” Rosselló Nevares said.
In the afternoon, the governor visited Aguadilla, where he participated in the Memorial Ceremony held at the Atlantic Garden Veterans Cemetery.
Without providing further details, the governor said that his administration is also working to grant more job opportunities to veterans and for them to access “preferential” tax treatment.
After recognizing that the inequality between veterans living on the island and those living in the 50 U.S. states must be modified, González said that next week there will be an announcement regarding the construction of two medical facilities in Puerto Rico to serve this population.
Although she did not go into details, since the Veterans Affairs Department will officially make the announcement, González said this and other initiatives will address the disparity in health services.
“This means that the funds to assist our veterans will not have a stop. On the contrary, we are working on them, specifically, for health care, the extension of the Veterans Hospital and the inclusion of Tricare Prime, a service that could benefit 29,000 retirees and their families in Puerto Rico who do not have it today,” she said.
González also addressed other measures that have been worked in Congress, such as the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which once signed into law would provide medical care to veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars – as well as their families – who were exposed to herbicides, such as Agent Orange.
“For more than 20 years, Congress had been working on this type of legislation without succeeding because of the cost of treatments,” González said of the bill that the federal House approved.
The Commissioner said that despite the lack of benefits for the military, veterans and their families on the island, Puerto Rican soldiers “still continue to be on active duty” in higher proportions than in many other jurisdictions.
“The life, sacrifice, and work of hundreds of men and women impose on each of us in public office to redouble our efforts and seek to close the inequality gap that our men and women suffer,” González said.
A new cemetery
Memorial Day activities, which lasted more than two hours, were held yesterday at the Bayamón National Cemetery. Since 1949, the remains of Puerto Rican soldiers who participated in conflicts from the Spanish-American War until, more recently, the Iraq War, rest in that cemetery.
“We should never forget those sacrifices made to guarantee our freedom,” said Nevis, the director of the National Cemetery, announcing the opening of a new national cemetery in Morovis later this year.
Nieves lamented that Memorial Day has lost its real meaning and has become a holiday related to the beginning of Summer.
Meanwhile, Montañez made a call to honor and celebrate the lives of fallen soldiers, but also of their families and those who are alive.
“We must continue to provide those services, because, even though it is important to recognize them (the fallen soldiers), it is also important that we recognize them when they are alive. We have to make sure we give them the services and benefits they deserve,” the Veterans advocate said.