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Bill would give combat vets more time off

Lawmakers seek time off for combat veterans

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Bob Selby, of Oyster Bay, was an Army specialist 4th class in Vietnam for roughly a year. When he began his service in 1969, he was part of an 11-man unit given the task of tracking enemy fire by radar, then firing back. He has post traumatic stress disorder from his service, and said he knows other combat veterans who have it too.

“I tracked incoming rockets and mortars from the enemy and I was under attack all the time,” he said. “The enemy didn’t mind mortaring civilians. My group saved lives, but war is a hell of a thing. I have war trauma.”

New York State Military Law section 242, which passed in November 2019, permits public officers or employees to receive additional paid leave. But in order for the law to become effective, it had to be authorized by the Legislature. It isn’t clear why the body didn’t move more quickly, but Legislator Steven Rhoads is working to redress what may have been an oversight.

The Republican from Bellmore introduced a bill on Tuesday that, if passed, would benefit county employees who are combat veterans. The bill would give them an additional five days off each year for Veterans Affairs appointments, physical therapy and psychological or stress-related treatment.

“From the very founding of our nation, we have had brave men and women come forward from every generation, willing to put on the uniform of this country and serve and defend our freedom here at home and across the world,” Rhoads said. “As a result of that service, many have sustained combat-related injuries, some visible, some not visible.”

The bill is on the Legislature’s Veterans Affairs and Rules Committee’s agendas on Monday, and will go before the full Legislature for a vote on June 28.

Combat veterans, union officials and county employees attended Rhoads’s news conference, which was held at Wantagh American Legion Post 1273.

“Combat veterans have been so traumatized, and so much is involved when they return,” said Selby, who belongs to Oyster Bay’s Amvets North Shore Memorial Post 21. “I would like to see the bill passed, especially for modern-day vets. Their injuries are so much more devastating.”

It is the responsibility of lawmakers to take care of county employees who are veterans by recognizing their service and the results of that service, Rhoads said, especially in June, which is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month.

PTSD, which many combat veterans suffer from, is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress resulting from injury or severe psychological shock. Symptoms can include disturbance of sleep, vivid recollections of the experience and dulled responses to others and the outside world.

“Today, the majority is filing legislation to provide those five service days, five days’ credit, for all combat veterans to seek that treatment if they feel they need it,” Rhoads said. “We want them to feel that they are not alone.”

Matthew Schmidt, president of the Nassau Police Veterans Association, said the bill was important, and long overdue. “There are these county workers out there that have to go to appointments related to their illnesses and injuries that they got while they were serving in combat,” said Schmidt, a combat veteran and a retired Nassau County police officer. “Some of these injuries aren’t visible, including PTSD. A lot of these guys don’t want to come forward.”

The legislation would also excuse veterans from having to tell their employers what they were being treated for. Rather, all they would have to say is they have a combat-related illness or injury.

“A lot of times, people say that this is going to cost the county money,” Schmidt said. “One thing I want to say is when that veteran raised their hand and said, ‘I am going to serve to protect this country, this county and give us the freedom that we have today,’ they didn’t ask if it was going to cost their life.”

Just because veterans are no longer on the battlefield, Selby said, doesn’t mean they aren’t still fighting internal battles. He has undergone years of “war trauma therapy” at the Veterans Administration center in Hicksville.

“The first night of [the Tet Offensive], in 1969, we lost 25 American soldiers,” he recounted. “These are the things you think about when it’s quiet.”

“I think it’s great that [Rhoads] is doing this,” George DiBitetto, commander of the Wantagh American Legion, said. “It should have been done a long time ago, but I give him a lot of credit for doing this for us today. It’s a big help.”