Norman Verbanic, an 82-year-old Navy veteran from the Korean War era, has been working out for months to participate in the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
So have many of the nearly 1,000 other veterans who learned last week the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had abruptly canceled the Western New York games in which they planned to compete.
On Tuesday, a news conference was called to cry foul on the VA and to update the region on efforts to reinstate the games. Verbanic was told to continue his workouts.
The Elma resident said he intends to do just that.
“I went and got a stress test, and my doctor said I’m good to compete. Sometimes I’ll swim a hundred laps at the YMCA in Orchard Park,” Verbanic said, holding up a special athletic ring. “My daughter bought this ring for me. It keeps track of my laps and how long it takes to do each lap.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, told Verbanic and dozens of others at the news conference that they, too, are in a competition – challenging the VA’s top brass on their decision about the games.
Schumer said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki is reconsidering and promised to get back to him by week’s end.
The games, which had been expected to pump $2.2 million into the local economy, were called off just 10 weeks before their start, with the VA citing potential financial concerns.
“Secretary Shinseki assured me the games are postponed, not canceled,” Schumer said at the gathering in the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and 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, who said he is also seeking help from the White House, offered a harsh assessment of the VA, saying it could not get its story straight on 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. [The VA] might have a funding problem,” Higgins said.
That excuse, he said, was invalid. “We added an extra $2.5 billion to their budget,” the congressman said of a funding resolution recently passed.
It is estimated that the VA would have to spend about $1 million to put on the games.
Shinseki, Higgins added, said 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.
Welch said many of the participants, 55 years of age and older, are Vietnam veterans, and it is yet another misstep in how the country has treated them.
“I’m very disappointed in Secretary Shinseki, a fellow Vietnam veteran. He knows the value of recreational activity. There’s no justification for this,” Welch said.
Mayor Byron W. Brown called the VA decision a slap in the face to veterans “who honorably served the country” and a slap to 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 Shinseki succeeded in reinstating the games.
As for Verbanic, the chance to compete in swimming would be a first for him. But even more important, he says, is the fact that the games would send a strong message about how important it is for older people to stay physically fit.
“When my heart is pumping strong, I’m not sick. I save the government money in health care costs because I take care of myself,” he said.