Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday said the state will expand eligibility for a military scholarship to the family of any member of the military who dies, goes missing or becomes severely, permanently disabled.
Cuomo said the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation will shoulder the cost of the Military Enhanced Recognition Incentive and Tribute (MERIT) Scholarship until the state government can vote on it in next year’s budget. Previously, the scholarship was only extended to a military family where a service member was killed in a combat zone.
"Many issues we deal with today are complicated… But some issues are more straightforward. There are issues we judge with our heart and our conscience, our morals and our values," Cuomo said, adding: "New Yorkers want to extend benefits for all those lost or disabled while on active duty. Period."
Under Cuomo’s directive, the scholarship will be available to children, spouses and financial dependents of service members who are killed, missing in action, or permanently, severely disabled while performing any military duties.
The scholarship was created in 2003 and "covers up to four years of full-time undergraduate study (or five years in an approved five-year bachelor’s degree program)," according to the governor’s office. Applicants must also meet several other requirements, including that their tuition is "equal to the actual tuition or the State University of New York’s (SUNY) in-state tuition, whichever is less."
In 2018, just over 100 students were awarded the scholarship for a total of $1.8 million, according to Cuomo.
Cuomo said the expansion of the program is expected to cost the state "several million" until the State Legislature can vote on it as part of next April’s budget.
"We’re not going to wait until next April to make sure we honor our obligation. This is truly the least we can do," he said, adding: "It’s not uncommon to put all budget-relevant issues together for the state budget if a bill has a financial consequence… but I think this is a special exception."
Mecca Nelson, of Brooklyn, said her husband, Mario, served as an army sergeant in Iraq. Her husband, who was 26 years old and had immigrated to New York from Haiti as a child, was killed in 2006 when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near his vehicle, Cuomo said by way of introduction.
Now, Nelson said, her daughter is almost 16 years old, and they’re starting to look at colleges.
"I can tell you firsthand how devastating it is to lose someone and the toll it takes on your life. But to make matters worse, many spouses and families have to struggle to make ends meet while grieving their loved ones," Nelson said. "This award is life-changing for families like mine."