New York’s 21st Congressional District has close ties with the military. Between the nearly 20,000 active-duty soldiers who serve at Fort Drum, and the nearly 70,000 veterans who now live in the district, congressional candidates from the area have always had a special focus on military and veterans issues.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, is the incumbent in the race for the NY-21 House seat. She’s been heavily involved in legislating the military since she joined Congress. In 2015, she was the only freshman congressperson on the National Defense Authorization Act conference committee, a position she was given due to her experience with foreign policy from her time in President George W. Bush’s administration.
Tedra Cobb of Canton is the Democratic candidate in the race for NY-21’s House seat. She said as a county legislator in St. Lawrence County, she worked closely with the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, now known as Advocate Drum, and has lived and worked for the last 30 years in a community that’s home to many veterans and soldiers. She also said her work with the Fort Drum Health Planning Organization when she sat on the North Country Healthcare Redesign Committee has given her insight into local soldiers’ and veterans’ issues.
In Congress, Stefanik sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and the Subcommittee on Readiness. She’s the Republican ranking member of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities and sits on the House Intelligence Committee.
“If you think about the threats we face, there are more now than at any point in my lifetime,” she said. “You have a rising China that is making significant investments in their military, you have an adversarial Russia that continues to sow discord with cyberattacks, and you have Iran, which continues to fund terrorism around the globe.”
Stefanik said she’s currently a member of the China Task Force, a group of Republican congresspeople who work to assess and recommend responses to the expansion of Chinese international influence.
Stefanik said the country must also focus on artificial intelligence development, specifically for military applications. She also said she’s worked to ensure the U.S. Department of Defense continues to invest in those technologies.
“One area I’ve developed leadership in is making sure that, when it comes emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, that we don’t cede our leadership position,” she said.
The congresswoman said she authored the artificial intelligence commission that was signed into law as part of the NDAA two years ago.
On cyber issues, Stefanik said she’s focused attention on growing the U.S. Cyber Command, a combatant command that works to defend American technological infrastructure from attacks and coordinates American cyber operations internationally.
“Obviously we had the 2016 election with the troll farm from Russia. Since then I’ve worked to mature Cyber Command, setting up a completely new combatant command,” she said. “We worked really hard to make sure Cyber Command was fully funded to be able to combat any types of disinformation.”
Stefanik said the biggest issue she hears about from Fort Drum soldiers has been regarding licensing. When soldiers and their families receive change orders and move between states, military spouses frequently face a situation where their professional licenses for nursing, teaching and any other licensed occupation are not valid in their new state. They are required to pay for new licensing courses and an updated licensing test.
Now, the DOD provides up to $500 of support for professional re-licensing, but Stefanik said she thinks they can do even better.
“We can continue to make improvements,” Stefanik said.
Locally, Stefanik said she would like to see continued support for the unique integration between Fort Drum and the surrounding community. Where most military bases in the U.S. and internationally have K-12 schools and a hospital on base, Fort Drum does not. Soldiers there seek treatment in area hospitals, like Carthage Area Hospital and at Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown. Their children typically attend public schools in the community as well. Stefanik said she thinks that system can be a model for bases across the country, but the DOD must focus on improving their reimbursement systems to ensure local school districts and hospitals get the financial support to continue serving Fort Drum.
When it comes to veterans’ issues, Stefanik said she believes the Veterans Affairs Administration and its medical system have ongoing issues that must be addressed. She’s supportive of the VA Choice Act, which gives veterans the ability to seek VA-funded care from private physicians if they are unable to get an appointment at a VA medical center within a month of their preferred date, or are located too far away from a VA medical center that provides the care they require.
“We helped pass the VA Choice Act, but we also need to keep a close eye on that to make sure that it’s working so veterans can go to Samaritan, River Hospital, Carthage, and not have to travel all the way to Syracuse,” she said.
She said she would also like to see increased support for addiction treatment services and drug courts for veterans battling drug addiction, and increased support for caregivers who take care of injured veterans, to ensure those who care for veterans are able to afford to do so.
When it comes to national security, Cobb focused on the allegations that Russian intelligence has offered Taliban-linked militants cash rewards for confirmed kills of American and allied forces in Afghanistan.
“We still have no answer from Elise Stefanik or the president on those Russian bounties. I think I’m always going to circle back and start with that because it is crucially important,” she said. “We have soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, and more who will be deployed there in the future.”
Cobb, like Stefanik, said locally, military families continue to face issues with professional licenses, and she would like to see reciprocity between states on recognizing those professional licenses, at least for military families.
She said she would also like to see a special consideration given to the children of military families in schools.
“Children are often moving to several different school districts every two years, and we want to make sure that children get the right credit for their education, so when they are here they can quickly get into the school system and get up to speed,” she said.
Cobb also said she would like to see more support for newly discharged veterans. She talked about how a friend of hers served in the military, using helicopters to move supplies and overseeing staff who did the same. She said when her friend went to apply for jobs in the civilian world, their skills from the military were not seen as valuable.
“I think what happens is that civilians look at the military as something other,” she said. “The skills that people have when they leave the military, and look for jobs … they have transferable skills, but the civilian populations and people hiring don’t often see that.”
Cobb said she would like to see more work done on educating civilians on what transferable skills service members may have, and programs made available to educate service members on how they can apply those transferable skills in the civilian workforce.
When it comes to veterans’ issues, Cobb said she’s seen how many veterans in the district were happy with some parts of the VA Choice Act, namely how it allowed them to seek care in their local communities, as opposed to having to drive to Albany or Syracuse for treatment at a VA medical center.
She said introducing private caregivers into the VA medical system has led to some complications. In the VA, Cobb said doctors are not incentivized to see as many patients as possible because they are not paid per patient. That means veterans seeking care are able to have more time with their doctors.
“The problem with privatization that we are starting to see is that doctors are approaching it from a fee-for-service model, so veterans aren’t getting the sort of time that they need in medical appointments,” she said. “That is something I think we really need to address, especially if we are going to continue to have private sector, not VA, doctors treating service members and veterans.”
She said she would like to see federal support for the VA increase as well. The administration currently has 46,000 open positions, from support staff to high-level specialists, and Cobb said understaffing has left veterans out in the cold.
“When service members leave the military, it takes about 18 months to two years for a person who has served in the military to get disability benefits,” she said. “That is far too long, because during that time they don’t have the financial support they need, they’re in sort of a no man’s land.”
Cobb said when she was on the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, she and her co-legislators worked to bring the VA into vacant space in the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, a measure which ultimately failed.
“I will work very hard to use the psychiatric center so that we have on this side of the district a center, and we can have those jobs,” she said.
Cobb said Canandaigua, in Ontario County, has seen job growth since it opened a suicide prevention hotline outpost in a vacant health care space in their town, and she sees no reason why the same benefits can’t come to this region of the state.
Cobb said she would also like to see additional support for caretakers of injured and older veterans. She’s said many times veterans’ spouses are the ones who step in as their caretakers, and often have to stop working.
Cobb said representatives for the north country have routinely held positions on congressional committees relating to military and veterans issues, like the House Armed Services Committee, and if elected, she would seek the same positions.
“I think that it is crucially important to have a representative from this district on the Armed Services Committee,” Cobb said.
She said she’s been disappointed by Stefanik’s decision to skip House Intelligence Committee meetings in recent months, and vowed that she would not do the same.
“I think we deserve a person who will put this community before anything else, and like I said, in February (Stefanik) stopped attending House Intelligence (Committee) meetings to stump for the president, and that is just downright wrong,” she said.