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Perspective

Thomas Cassidy with his father Hugh

By Thomas Cassidy

New York State government should not cut funding for America’s heroes residing at the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University. The veterans home has, and does, provide first-class health services for veterans and their spouses who receive rehabilitation and long-term care in their time of need. Providing topnotch nursing home care for our veterans, many of whom put their own lives on the line to keep us safe, is a patriotic action that truly expresses “thank you for your service.”

At the age of 17 my father, Hugh “Joe” Cassidy, enlisted in the United States Coast Guard to serve his country during World War II. Before he reached his 19th birthday he participated in five shore invasions with the Marines and Army as frogman. 

He was frequently shot at while he stood on coral reefs in the Philippine Islands acting as a human buoy to help keep the landing boats from crashing into reefs and sinking. He was almost thrown overboard when his ship, the USS Cavalier, was torpedoed in the still of a Pacific Ocean night. But my Dad always said he was not a hero. His heroes were all the soldiers and sailors who put their lives in harm’s way, were wounded or died in battle.  

When the LISVH first opened, he again served his fellow veterans for many years as a volunteer. He visited the nursing home almost every day because it was his way of supporting his “band of brothers and sisters.” When my Dad fractured his hip at age 83, many doctors at the hospital thought he would never walk again. 

It took a year of rehabilitation with the skilled and compassionate staff at the veterans home, but my Dad walked out of the nursing home and spent the last year of his life with my mother in their own home.

In the 74 years since the end of World War II, military men and women have been on the front line of battles in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other locations around the world. Sadly, the physical, emotional and psychological wounds never heal for many of the warriors who fulfill their oath to protect America. I learned that firsthand more than 20 years ago when my father had emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.

I visited him the morning after his operation. He was laying his bed shivering and shaking uncontrollably. He whispered he had the worst nightmare ever. He was back in a foxhole in the Philippines, guns were blasting and bombs were dropping all around him. Then he looked at his fellow combat veteran in the bed next to him and said, “Sal got me through it. Thank God he was here for me.”

Today we might say that my father had post-traumatic stress disorder or a flashback. But whatever you call it, his fellow veteran pulled him through just like the veterans do for each other every day at the Long Island State Veterans Home. 

New York State is facing a budget crunch, that much is true. But exempting the state veterans’ nursing homes from the budget cuts would be a meaningful way for New Yorkers to say “thank you for your service.”

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When I was in college, I wrote an essay in a seminar. In such a small class, we read everyone else’s writings each week and needed to be prepared to share our observations or else face the ignominy of our teacher either excusing us from the room or glaring at us until we cracked.

One of the other writers had written this spectacular story about four people at a dinner party. She had moved the reader through the thoughts of each of the characters, until she got to the fourth person, whose social anxiety receded when he started choking. His inability to control noises that interrupted her stories irritated his wife, who glared at him until he read her vexed expression and retreated to the kitchen. Separated from the group, he choked to death. The ending was so powerful that I was sure my prose was inferior.

When my turn came, I waited through the usual polite beginning, as my classmates shared what they thought worked. Great, I thought, it won’t take long before we transition to the unnerving category of “what could he have done better.”

It took some time before people starting quibbling with my choice of words. Certainly, I could maneuver through the minor discomfort of a new word here or a different turn of phrase there.

Professor Brilliance sat in his green corduroy pants, with his oversized left foot rising and falling diagonally above his right knee to his rhythm, tilting his head to the side, awaiting a worthy insight.

“Well,” he said, scanning the room slowly, “has anyone spotted clichés?”

Oh no! Clichés? Clichés! I thought I had scrubbed out the clichés. I quickly scanned words that floated unevenly above the page, hoping to find any and expose them before anyone else did.

His foot stopped, and so did my breathing.

“No,” he nodded slowly, “I didn’t see any, either.”

This had to be only a temporary respite before the scissors started slicing.

“Now, let’s go over the introduction to this fine piece,” he said.

Was that sarcasm? Did he mean that it was fine, or was he acknowledging its shortcomings?

As we went line by line through the piece, my writing held up to the scrutiny. Some of my classmates even defended a few phrases, suggesting that they found them perfectly fine just as they were.

The professor saved his lone arrow for his final remark.

“This is a solid piece of writing,” he said, before adding, “for someone your age.”

And there it was, ladies and gentlemen. The backhanded compliment that sent me back to the children’s table, wondering what the adults might be discussing.

Now that I’m older than Professor Brilliance was when he shared that line, I have considered whether he had a point and the answer is, yes and no.

My experiences have changed my perspective. I recognize the value of history, even if I despised memorizing dates and names for a test. I also understand the Chinese devotion to their elders, not because I’m older, but because I have an increasing appreciation for all the decisions my parents and their generation made.

At the same time, when I hear the ideas my children share, I don’t minimize them in the context of their shorter lives. Instead, I recognize the wisdom that comes from their experiences in a handheld techno world they maneuver through more deftly than I.

All these years later, I guess I’d have a comeback to my professor’s observation. “Maybe you’re right,” I’d say, “or, maybe, I’m young enough to know better.”