Patrick Kelley sat back on the black bench, the words “Never Forget” cut into the metal, one hand resting on his cane. His eyes occasionally drifted to the two metal towers of Cortland’s Sept. 11 Memorial.
Kelley was one of hundreds of National Guard soldiers called to help with recovery efforts after the attacks on the World Trade Center caused thousands of deaths and left the site dozens of feet deep in rubble.
Kelley arrived a couple of days after the attack, with Company B of 204th Engineering Battalion, where he worked security for the site, ensuring other first responders could recover bodies without issues.
He said at times it feels as if the contribution of the National Guard has been forgotten.
Many of them face health issues years later, including Kelley. The 54-year-old, who now lives in Homer but is originally from Cortland, uses a cane to get around. He has a best friend, Terry Villanova, who helps him with things like paperwork and getting places.
“I’m also limited financially,” he said, noting he cannot work due to his various ailments.
Some of them, like Kelley, have doctors who said those illnesses are related to spending weeks in the dust and debris.
A variety of programs help the first responders cope. However, guidance to access those programs has been limited for veterans of the Guard, veterans like Kelley say, moreso than other responders, including the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy, which also deployed.
But not all National Guard members know they need to get checked, what programs are available or how to go about getting access to health benefits or compensation. When they do know, the process isn’t easy.
Retired Sgt. Ann Marie Pearson was part of the 342nd Forward Support Battalion, Company C, a medical unit, sent to help with recovery efforts.
She agreed with Kelley — the National Guard in many ways has been forgotten. Now, she and Louise Schoene, whose husband was also called down to serve, are fighting to get increased support for National Guard soldiers.
A war zone
After the attack on the buildings, nothing was left but rubble. The site and weeks that followed were filled with smoke, flashing lights from emergency responders and the sounds of crews looking for bodies.
It became known as “Ground Zero” or “the Pile.”
More than 8,000 National Guard soldiers were called by then-Gov. George Pataki to serve under state active duty, otherwise known as Article 32, which activated Kelley’s and Pearson’s units.
For them, the site was a war zone. Schoene said she has about 130 registered with programs and 200 following the issue on a social media page she has set up.
But she said there are hundreds of others who may not even know the programs exist.
Kelley pointed from the bench to the Cortland monument: “I was right there. I could stand on the pile.”
Pearson said she would walk up and down roads seeing if people needed medical attention. Her medical unit was stationed in a bank near Ground Zero where the work by first responders digging through the rubble could be heard.
“Immediately when we got there we started working,” Pearson said, noting her medical unit helped with everything from recovery to security. “We worked around the clock.”
By the end of the day she, like Kelley and many others, was covered head to toe in dust.
They didn’t have a change of clothes and were only give “little paper masks” to protect them.
“We didn’t have any protection,” she said.
State vs. federal deployment
But not every soldier had been deployed by the state. Then-President George W. Bush activated some units under Article 10.
The difference between the federal Article 10 activation and the state’s Article 32 is the difference in what compensation and benefits people were likely to get, but Kelley, Schoene and Pearson said the soldiers all faced the same risk at Ground Zero — the dust — and should all be covered under federal active duty programs.
Kelley can still taste and smell the dust that covered the collapsed and crumbling buildings.
He said he has health issues related to being in the dust for more than a month, including sinusitis, rhinosinusitis, severe sleep apnea and anxiety.
He gets monitoring and some health care through the World Trade Health Program. However, the program will cover costs associated with care only when a person:
n Uses health care providers and pharmacies affiliated with the program.
n Gets care for a condition certified as related to 9/11.
n Has the treatment authorized before it is administered.
While many of the conditions Kelley has are covered by the program, one is not — Parkinson’s disease. Kelley said a doctor has told him that his Parkinson’s disease could be the result of serving on the Pile.
And while there is a health program, Schoene and Pearson said many National Guard members may not know of it, or that they should get checked for cancer or other Ground Zero-related ailments.
If they do know, the paperwork takes an hour to complete and requires proving both one’s presence at the site and that the illnesses could be related to being there.
Also, Veterans Affair coverage isn’t guaranteed for every National Guard soldier. — only those who serve 20 years or served in a combat zone.
Kelley served in a combat zone, and Pearson served 32 years between the Marine Corps and National Guard. Pearson deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, thyroid problems, high blood pressure, breathing issues and sleep apnea.
“I was a healthy person when I went down there and then over the years things started falling apart with my health,” she said.
Other National Guard members received Veterans Affairs retirement credit, Schoene said, but that is because Congress passed legislation in 2005 that re-designated Guard members from areas in and around New York as under federal active duty.
However, Schoene said the bill left out all the other New York counties — counties like Broome, where the 204th is headquartered, or Cortland.
Paperwork, time and hope
Kelley is unable to work because of his illnesses. However, getting compensation hasn’t been easy, he said. It comes down to paperwork, it comes down to eligibility status and it comes down to time.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesmen told the Cortland Standard his office stands behind current and former National Guard members.
“Guardsmen who believe they are suffering from a 9/11-related condition can apply to the NYS (New York state) Division of Military and Naval Affairs for disability compensation, which can include disability-related medical coverage,” Cuomo’s office said. “In order to obtain compensation, the individual must be medically evaluated and their condition must be related to their service in the period following the Sept. 11 attacks.”
However, Schoene, Pearson and Kelley said the process should be streamlined, so people don’t need to apply to multiple programs, fill out a reams of paperwork, just for the hope of getting approved.
They often feel frustrated and forgotten.
“I feel betrayed,” Kelley said about lack of information about the programs. “I think the National Guard could have done a much better job of telling soldiers, period. All of us that were there — and there were many of us — we were at risk and that we needed to join the programs and all that, if we so desired.”
He said he’s written to the governor’s office to get more assistance, but never hears back. He also said he was talking to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office until the person he was talking to no longer worked there and the conversations ceased.
“There was some frustration and anger there, so I can understand why people might not be happy to hear from me all the time,” he said. “I’m ill, I don’t feel well and I have a lot of issues that are keeping me from working at this point and at one point I was so ill we weren’t sure I was going to make it.”
Pearson is also angry at the governor’s office and other departments involved with the process, especially for not trying to better communicate to National Guard members.
“My concern is there are people that live in remote areas,” she said. They won’t know to get checked or sign up for the programs. “I’m very sad because I don’t know how to fix that.”
They are also upset that some Guard soldiers are treated differently from others because of how they were activated — state vs. federal.
Kelley got help from Schoene and Pearson, who have worked to notify Guard members and to help them through the paperwork.
The Schoene Foundation For 9/11 NYARNG Family Support, a nonprofit, was created to help soldiers and family members navigate the programs and paperwork, and find coverage through other avenues if they don’t qualify for any at veteran organizations.
“I’m trying to lay the groundwork because you cannot get the health care or compensation unless you can show you served,” she said.
She’s doing it with the help of Pearson, who is spreading the word.
Schoene is also working with a law firm, Barasch & McGarry, to get people sign up with the Victim’s Compensation Fund and other programs.
Schoene said she is also in contact with the office of Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo) about what could be done to benefit soldiers. Higgins’ office could not be reached for comment.
Kelley said he has talked to Rep. Anthony Brinidisi (DUtica).
“The heroes who helped cleanup after 9/11 deserve access to benefits,” Brindisi said in a statement. “Whether that’s the firefighters, policemen and women, Guardsmen and women, and other emergency personnel, we need to get them the care they earned. I am working to find a solution that can garner support from Democrats and Republicans and fix this problem.”
“I hope that any other National Guard soldiers that are reading this will consider whether they’re sick or not joining the health program,” Kelley said. “I’m also hopeful that our government will see it through to do the right thing by a group of people that had no fear and came to their country’s call and our country’s greatest need.”
Kelley stood up from the bench, took a few steps, looked at the 9/11 monument, and stood silently, learning on his cane.
He wants America to never forget.