Luzerne County veteran affairs director announces retirement

Luzerne County will need a new veteran affairs overseer because James Spagnola is retiring from the position he’s held since 2009.

A six-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, the 59-year-old Wilkes-Barre resident got emotional Wednesday as he thought of the residents he has assisted as county veteran affairs director.

“I got a chance to work with and meet people who took part in some of the biggest battles in U.S. history — World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War,” Spagnola said. “That has really been an honor for me — and a privilege. That’s been the best part of the job.”

He recalled being transfixed listening to Pringle resident Michael Finnerty. Spagnola was asked to present a county proclamation to the D-Day veteran but wanted to get to know him first rather than just showing up at the ceremonial dinner.

“He was there for the invasion of Normandy. He fought his way all through Germany. The stories he shared with me were unbelievable. He was just an amazing guy,” Spagnola said.

Approximately 21,000 county veterans and their dependents receive assistance from the county office, he said.

During his tenure, Spagnola said he reconfigured staff to ensure the entire office was actively assisting veterans and their dependents to secure the benefits they’ve earned.

“My number one accomplishment is the level of service we provide and how we improved it over the years,” he said.

In 2018, he jumped to action when he heard veteran service posts were struggling to place Memorial Day flags at the graves of veterans due to the physical limitations of aging veterans and declining post membership.

More than 25 individuals and groups answered the call to help veterans keep the tradition going, including scouts, school organizations and athletic teams.

The county buys the flags for Memorial Day decorating, which is a state law, but their placement on graves falls entirely on volunteers.

Spagnola said Wednesday many non-veteran volunteers have continued to assist, and he advises those interested in helping to call their local veteran service organization or contact his office at 570-706-3960.

He said he is confident the community will continue to support the program, noted he just received a call from a local business interested in volunteering.

His office will be distributing approximately 88,000 flags for the graves to veteran organizations next week.

The flags are inserted in holders also provided by the county to show respect for everyone who served, wartime or not, from the time of the Revolutionary War to the present day.

Spagnola also launched a program in 2011 to provide county veterans with free plastic identification cards that verify their honorable discharge from the military, saying this service was often requested by veterans. The federal government started offering the cards several years later, he said.

Most recently, Spagnola has been pushing for county implementation of a real estate property tax exemption program for military veterans permanently disabled in the line of duty. The exemption is currently available only to veterans disabled during a period of war.

Spagnola said the proposal is under county legal review — a step necessary before it can be presented to county council for consideration.

Attorneys at the state determined counties have the ability to grant the exemption without the wartime requirement, Spagnola said, noting a few counties already implemented the change.

Spagnola said his office regularly receives inquiries from disabled veterans who served at times not considered periods of war.

Retirement notice

June 3 will be Spagnola’s last day on the job, according to the retirement letter he submitted to county Human Services Division Head Lynn Hill on Wednesday.

“If there is anything I can do to help facilitate a successful transition, please let me know,” his letter said.

Spagnola was first hired as a veteran benefits specialist in the county in March 2007 and promoted to department director in October 2009.

He graduated from the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School and the U.S Naval Diving and Salvage Training School before serving as a nuclear power plant operator and ship diver onboard the USS Jacksonville, a nuclear-powered submarine, he had said.

Spagnola spoke highly of the current county administration and said he will be pursuing other opportunities.

County Manager Romilda Crocamo said the position will be publicly advertised in the near future. She thanked Spagnola for his “outstanding service, unwavering commitment to our veterans and invaluable contributions to Luzerne County.”

“His deep empathy and understanding of the needs of veterans have made a lasting impact on countless lives. Jim has been a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for those who have served our country with honor and valor,” Crocamo said. “We are confident that his legacy will continue to inspire and guide us in our mission to support and honor our veterans.”

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.


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