Amid this year’s budget negotiations, Bello went on NY1’s “Inside City Hall” and described Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure as one marked by unfulfilled campaign pledges: “He was going to put some money into (the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs). He was going to make some serious appointments. He was going to do a number of issues and items that we put forth. And subsequently, that hasn’t happened.”
This time, Bello saw funding for the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs double.
From a proposed veterans hospital closure to debates over adding a veteran label to municipal IDs, Bello, 48, watches veterans issues wind their way through City Hall, and has documented their trajectory in his NY MetroVets newsletter and advocated on behalf of fellow service members past and present since the late 1990s. The Yahoo group he uses to send his digital periodical has amassed at least 1,000 subscribers—and that doesn’t include those who follow his work on social media or track his testimony at government meetings.
“The majority of civilians, the public, believe that the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) will handle us. ... That’s not on the local level. This is where the city is supposed to be a partner,” said Bello, who was recently appointed to the administration’s Veteran Advisory Board. “We got some gains this year from City Hall, but I want them to listen more. I want them to do certain things.”
A younger Bello was eager to get away from the city he now works with. As a high schooler in Flushing, Bello said he had his sights set on joining the Army until a Navy recruiter asked him whether he wanted to stay stationed at one base or travel. Bello headed to Navy boot camp in 1984.
He started as a deckhand, but was disappointed with the menial aspects of the job; he describes one particularly dreary New Year’s Day spent circling the ship and painting its waterline near a cold, empty pier. Bello eventually became a yeoman, handling reports and paperwork for officers, and then became a Navy Reserves recruiter at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.
Shortly after Bello qualified for a promotion to petty officer first class in 1995, he developed asthma and said he was shown the door before getting a chance to attach the third stripe onto his uniform. Bello found himself back in Queens, where he struggled to find a new direction after the 20-year military career he had anticipated was cut short. He went from job interview to job interview without success. Then one employer asked if he had considered attending college, which ultimately inspired him to get degrees from LaGuardia Community College and then New York University.
Around 1996, Bello started organizing and advocating with fellow veterans under the moniker NY MetroVeterans. A few years later, the Mayor’s Office of Veteran’s Affairs stopped publishing its periodic newsletter highlighting happenings and veteran news, so Bello began circulating an e-newsletter of his own to ensure the community remained connected. His political engagement grew, and by 2003, Bello had helped draft his first piece of legislation with then-City Councilman Michael Nelson, which expanded the size of the Veteran Advisory Board.
Bello has spent years calling for reform of the vendor licensing system that vets rely on and urging the city to allocate more money for veterans services. He counts this year’s budget among his victories, along with a 2003 campaign to save the Manhattan VA hospital from closure and his push to have the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs’ leader elevated from a director to a commissioner.
“Joe wrote about (the proposed budget),” said Joseph Mondello, chairman of the Bronx Borough President’s Veteran Advisory Council, “and it inspired these other veteran advocates to go to the steps of City Hall and to speak on this matter, and because of that there was a sit-down and discussion, and what comes out of it is more money. He’s vital. ... He’s like The Inquirer.”