James Fitzgerald, Deputy Director of New York Veterans Alliance
“I see the necessity of the Mission. I see the potential behind breaking that barrier down. And that service comes in all shapes and sizes.”
Meet James Fitzgerald. James is a veteran whose military service spans almost a decade and includes deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the newly appointed Deputy Director of NYC Veterans Alliance, a member-driven, a grassroots advocacy organization focused on promoting veterans and military families as civic leaders in NYC, founded by long-term Civic Hall member Kristen Rouse – who is now the Deputy Director at the New York State Division of Veterans’ Services.
James Fitzgerald alongside Kristin Rouse, the founder of the New York Veterans Alliance
James describes himself as “a small-town Tennessee boy turned U.S. Army veteran who is now an advocate for all veterans throughout NYC.” Prior to the NYCVA, he was the Bronx Service Platoon Leader (Project Manager) for The Mission Continues, leading a team of volunteers to facilitate a range of community service projects. “I was partnered with Dreamyard and BronxPro to focus on the arts and area beautification. Our capstone project was a collection of ten rooftops painted with a mural designed by Bronx youth using specialized reflective paint that helped cool the building and made it more energy efficient.” James then worked as a Job Developer for the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization focused on homeless youth. James enjoys volunteering, movies, and yes, he’s a foodie. James is the recipient of many service awards, including the Purple Heart. You can contact him via his email or via his LinkedIn.
What Does He Do?
“We work with community organizations across the NYC Metro area to promote events for veterans and families posted online at OurVeterans.NYC, our year-round online resource hub visited by more than 4,000 users each month. We also remain the only organization dedicated to local-level advocacy for veterans and families here in NYC.”
A typical day for James might begin with work on upgrading the discharge status of service members so that they are entitled to benefits. This entails re-opening cases: Were soldiers bullied to the extent that self-preservation demanded that they go AWOL? Was their sexuality the basis of their dishonorable discharge?
It might then call for James to work with a reporter to educate the public on how the new USDA rule to change work requirements will have negative impacts on the veteran community here in New York – as they wait for a disability pension to be processed and are unable to work. And how this affects the 9% of veterans on SNAP. “I’m having to educate many people, including active duty service members who don’t understand that the policy provides no exception for veterans who are waiting for their claims to be processed.”
How Did He Get Into This Work?
“I grew up in Columbia, Tennessee to a very religious conservative family. We were raised in the Southern Baptist church and giving back to others was a part of that moral tradition. At an early age, I decided that the best and most productive use of my time was Cub Scouts (and then Boy Scouts). We shared a common thread of wanting to learn so that we could bring it back home. The majority of my mother’s side of the family was military. While I didn’t know the details of their service, I understood that it shaped their lives. Additionally, many in my family worked in the medical field; an industry built to help others. This continuous cycle of helping and giving back that I grew up in gave me the foundational thinking to expand on what service would mean to me as I entered adulthood.”
By the time James was nineteen he was making good money at a call center in Nashville, but the monotony of the work was soul-crushing. Each night he would return home and watch the CBS Evening News with his grandmother. Its daily segment, “Stories of Fallen Heroes” — airing during the Surge — convinced him that he could do more. During an afternoon lunch break, James presented himself at the local military recruitment center: “How quickly can you get me out of Tennessee?” Told that it would make the most impact, James joined the infantry in combat arms.
There is another layer to this story. When James was thirteen-years-old his older brother – then sixteen – came out as gay to his family. It did not go well. Shaken, James decided his path: He would remain in the closet. While many enlisted sought to overturn “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” nineteen-year-old James found the policy a clear, defined standard that would enable him to serve.
James thrived during his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming a leader who was worthy of the respect and trust of his unit. On November 13th, 2010, during his deployment to the Kunar province in Afghanistan he was injured while performing a combat operation. His unit was fighting up a steep mountain and was ambushed. James was shot in his left thigh and the impact knocked him down the mountain, causing him to tumble sixty feet down into a ravine, his sixty-pound pack absorbing the brunt of the shock. His radio was lost; his weapon had become unsheathed during the fracas. “I may be one of the next stories of the fallen,” he thought to himself, “But, I’m at peace.”
His time spent down in the ravine — minutes unwinding like days, caused him to reflect. While he was prepared to die, his greatest fear was being captured. He didn’t want to be tortured and forced – live on CNN – to renounce America. On his person he carried a defense grenade with a 35-meter blast radius; he was prepared to pull the pin. “I thought that this was my last day on Earth.”
James’ second in command and best friend Josh was also wounded at the time of the ambush. Even as he was imperiled, he sought to recover James and return him to safety. As he, too, landed in the ravine – injured and defenseless himself – the two engaged in what both thought was their last conversation, honored to have served the Nation and to end their tour together. It was at this moment that James realized an even greater fear than being captured: A fear encased in amber, first experienced the day his brother came out: “I can’t lose the people that I love.” This fear of rejection suddenly melted away. And he came out to Josh.
The two were rescued, and James’ injuries changed his trajectory: “How could I continue my service if I can’t deploy? What can I utilize? My mind. I became a teacher.” In 2014, having been medically retired from the military due to the injuries sustained in the Kunar attack, James moved to NYC to explore new ways to continue his service and give back to his community.
There, he was connected with a robust veterans’ community – leading him to the advocacy space. “Honestly, so many people [who make our laws and policies] don’t know shit. Are you including LGBTQ veterans, people of color who happen to be veterans, and those who have been previously silenced and oppressed when you talk about policy pushed out?”
James has been affiliated with the Alliance since its inception. “I was initially a volunteer, moving through as an Advocate, then a Fellow, accessing every opportunity available. James assumed the position of Deputy Director this past November 1st.
What project is he working on?
While the Restoration of Honor Act — S.45B/A.8097 – written to enable LGBTQ veterans who were denied an honorable discharge because of their sexual orientation or gender identity the right to apply to have their New York State veterans’ benefits restored — was signed into law by Governor Cuomo this past fall, there are issues to resolve and the Veterans Alliance is seeking two amendments:
- The first would remove a requirement in the bill for veterans with PTSD to obtain a mental health diagnosis from Veterans Affairs (VA) in order to access state benefits.
- The second amendment recognizes that there are LGBTQ veterans who were victims of entrapment by bigoted officials and charged with “soliciting sexual activity” or who were punished for pushing back against assaults. It seeks to acknowledge those who were deemed “absent without leave” did so because of homophobic hostility, and ought to be eligible for an honorable discharge.
“We are working on H.R. 1925/S.898, which will designate the Manhattan Campus of the New York Harbor Health Care System of the Department of Veterans Affairs as the “Margaret Cochran Corbin Campus of the New York Harbor Health Care System.” The initiative will honor the Nation’s first woman veteran recognized and pensioned by the U.S. military for her wounds in combat in 1776 – sustained during the Battle of Fort Washington here in Manhattan.
What is he reading?
James is currently pouring over “When Brooklyn was Queer” by Hugh Ryan, a journey through the queer history of Brooklyn beginning in the early 1820s, following the borough’s evolution over time. The Brooklyn Navy is a major character in the book: “Who knew that it was a really queer spot? Filled with lower-class service members, everyone there mixing and mingling. A beautiful expression of love and consideration for others.”
James discovered the book at the Upper West Side’s New York Historical Society as he was researching the Battle of Brooklyn for Margaret Cochran Corbin. “During Pride this June I was blessed to participate in a Historical Society event with queer veterans from all eras, regaled by their experiences.”
What is his ask for Civic Hall?
“What are the issues facing the veteran in your life? I can provide [Civic Hall members] with a direct answer on how to help a veteran, give them the pathway to assist them. I’m here to provide any knowledge and guidance to anyone that they encounter from the military/veteran community. That is my expertise. I’ve been there and have had a plethora of experience in a wide variety of non-profit government agencies. I am a one-stop-shop resource on the military and vet community. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll find it!”