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State

Hochul proposes allowing National Guard members to qualify as veterans under state law

National Guard members loading sandbags onto a truck.
National Guard
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Albany is making sure members of the National Guard are covered for service in New York City after 9/11, even if they were not technically assigned there.

Often, National Guard members are clearly eligible for benefits, although Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing legislation to allow Guard members to qualify as veterans under state law. That's a different set of rules.

The big issue is service at the World Trade Center. Washington said there was no health risk in the chemically-ridden air and many who served have learned that's not true. There are special benefits for those whose health was hurt or lethally disabled on "The Pile."

Erie County Veterans Service Director David Shenk said the recognition is important.

"It's always a good day when someone steps up to acknowledge the service that was provided and to give them the benefits that many, in this case, now, the entire state government believes that they deserve," Shenk said.

Shenk knows some of those problems. During his time in Iraq, he was dealing with the military fire pits, which burned debris and garbage. Serious health problems are turning up in those who worked near the pits or were even downwind of them.

U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Marco Rubio penned a bipartisan op-ed in Newsweek this week calling for the passage of the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. The bill would establish presumption of service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits.

Gillibrand said approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits. Shenk said it's important to find all eligible Guard members.

"Some of them may have passed on, due to what they were exposed to or due to natural causes, or they moved away and may never be aware that this law passed," Shenk said. "I hope it does get some recognition on the national level because not everyone stays put. A lot of Americans move around the country. So it's hard to put a firm number on that."

Erie County Veterans Service Officer Daniel Ratka said it's also not clear how many will be helped with medical care, although those Guard members have to tell their doctors where they were.

"Just be honest with your primary care provider of your symptoms and hopefully clue him in to where your were and what you did," Ratka said. "No different than David, when he was in Iraq, to say, 'Oh, by the way, I was over here and we did strange things.'"