Most of the protestors lining the steps of City Hall in the middle of the week were clad in worn black leather vests, with mismatched patches of yellow and red sewn on. The words “Rolling Thunder” were emblazoned on many of their backs. Some of the men had their long, gray hair hidden underneath blue and red bandanas. A few were in wheelchairs.
These were military veterans—an older, mostly male group, maybe 40 of them—gathered to share their disapproval of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently announced proposed budget cuts to the Department of Veterans Services. And they were encouraged by some of the mayor’s political rivals.
On Jan. 24, de Blasio released his proposed $84.7 billion budget for New York City—$12 billion more than when he first ran for mayor in 2014. Despite increasing the budget, de Blasio is proposing a $300,000 cut to the Department of Veteran Services—which his administration had established just a little over a year ago. The department was created as a separate entity to improve and strengthen veterans services and resources to the more than 200,000 veterans living in NYC.
The department’s press secretary, Alexis Wichowski, explained the cut in response to questions about the new budget: “The changes reflect non-recurring budget costs for computers, desks and lamps, because we’re not going to have to buy them every year so we needed the extra money last year to cover those costs,” said Wichowski.
Wichowski feels there may be a lack of overall awareness about the details of the budget process, which she said is still underway.
Nonetheless, the protest took place on Wednesday, Feb. 1, and was attended by veterans and their supporters, as well as local politicians who are campaigning for the mayoral election in November. The rally gave prospective candidates an opportunity to present themselves as an alternative leader.
One of these local politicians was Bo Dietl, a retired NYPD officer and detective who is running for mayor. “De Blasio is pissing away $12 million on legal funding,” Dietl shouted at the podium. “I feel so horrible that these guys have anything taken away from them when we should be giving them more.”
Another mayoral contender, Paul Massey, spoke to the intimate but stalwart crowd huddled together in the biting cold. “My dad and my uncle are veterans, so I am proud of every single one of you,” said Massey, a small business owner. “We’ve got corruption in the administration and it’s out of hand and his money could have easily gone to our vets. The vets are the first people we should support.”
The moderator of the event, Michael Faulkner, is also running for mayor. “We’ve seen the problem and we know the solution,” he said. “First of all, we need to speak out like we’re speaking out now to make a difference. In a city like New York we need to honor our veterans.”
Raul Contreras, an Assistant Press Secretary from de Blasio’s office, attended* the protest, which included a group chant of ‘Veterans Matter!’ ringing out against the street traffic. He said the rally “totally” misrepresents what is happening within the Department of Veteran Services. “These are one-time start-up costs,” said Contreras. “We ended chronic veteran homelessness, and former President Obama even commented on that.”
Still, the budget could result in the loss of a homelessness advocate, at least according to an analysis by the NYC Veterans Alliance.
Ray Oritz, 69, a born-and-raised New Yorker and an Army veteran, said he found out about the proposed budget cuts on Facebook. “I was disappointed because there just isn’t much of anything for us and now they are taking this,” said Ortiz. “My father, grandfather, and cousins are all veterans. If we don’t do something now there will be nothing in the future.”
Ortiz was one of a handful of veterans wearing a Rolling Thunder vest. The group is an organization with more than 100 chapters across the U.S. with a mission to bring attention to POW-related causes. Bruno Andolfo, 50, A Queens resident, was also wearing a Rolling Thunder vest and bandana. He served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne division.
“We come back with catastrophic injuries and we’re constantly getting shunned by lots of organizations,” said Andolfo. “At the end of the day the dollar amount of the budget cuts doesn’t matter. We have to treat the veterans with the upmost care.”
Andolfo was celebrating his fiftieth birthday on the steps of City Hall protesting with fellow servicemen and women. “I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate my birthday than with my brothers and sisters,” Andolfo said with a smile.
Representatives from NYC Veterans Alliance—founded in 2015 to advocate for veterans at the local level—attended the protest as well. The group is hosting a second rally at City Hall on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, which they are calling, “Love Your Veterans.”
* This story originally said that Raul Contreras of Mayor de Blasio’s office left the demonstration early, but he says he stayed for the duration.