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'Renegades' lobby for veterans' services

Two leaders of a small, persistent group hail from Irondequoit, and their aim is to make their voices heard nationwide.

IRONDEQUOIT Robert Fink has been spending his retirement years standing up for veterans' benefits.

"My desire is to see that any veteran who wishes to use the Veterans Administration system is eligible to do so, and will not be turned away," Fink said, 80. "I believe in the troops and that somebody shouldn't take advantage of somebody else."

Recently, veterans care has come under intense fire for conditions and red tape at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Those conditions included soldiers returning from Iraq living in sub-standard rooms with holes in the walls.

There is also an ongoing fight to keep Canandaigua's Veterans Administration hospital open.

"No one can spin this veterans' issue right now ... Veterans are just not being respected," said Chris Hollfelder of Gates.

Fink is a founder of Veterans to Veterans Connection, a group that is led by friend Gene Simes of Walworth. Fink has been getting some help from high places in recent months, and his effort is gaining momentum.

First, Sea Breeze neighbor Dale Dowling, a retired sheet metal worker, got involved. Then he brought in Hollfelder, who is president of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association, Local Union No. 46.

For about four months now, the veterans and the union have been working together to lobby for legislation that would require mandatory funding for veterans' health care services, including dental and mental health services.

"It sounds so simple, but the veterans have been ignored for too long," Hollfelder said.

Dowling said the cause should be under "everybody's umbrella," and they're trying to make things right.

"It seems to me that if we can afford to send troops, we can afford to take care of them when they come home," Dowling said.

Here, the tiny band of veterans and union people has been getting its message out by asking politicians, municipalities and community, state and national leaders to sign a resolution of support.

The resolution essentially resolves that the U.S. Congress should pass legislation that guarantees full, mandatory funding of health care services for veterans.

One of their biggest successes to date was to have the resolution signed last week by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, during his stop at the Veterans Administration hospital in Canandaigua.

The resolution was also signed in February by the Irondequoit Town Board. Fink and Dowling, longtime Irondequoit residents, and Hollfelder then stopped by the board's March meeting to present a certificate of appreciation. At the same meeting, they also presented a flag and other mementos to Gary Pawlak, who recently returned to Irondequoit after a year-long deployment to Iraq.

"They're very active and politically motivated to help veterans and fight the cuts," said Irondequoit Supervisor Mary Ellen Heyman. "And what the resolution does is really draw attention to their cause. They're really trying to be the face of the faceless military."

She refers to things like the potential closing of veteran centers, like that in Canandaigua.

"It's getting so veterans have nowhere to go but private hospitals," Hollfelder said, adding that he, Fink and Dowling believe they can be better treated at facilities geared specifically to veterans.

Hollfelder said if enough leaders representing enough people sign the resolution, there will be a "critical number of voices that will empower our elected officials to take the steps necessary" to pass legislation.

They even now have a name for their initiative. A key mission of what is being called the Veterans to Veterans Connection's Operation Firing for Effect is "to draw public awareness and media attention to serious problems facing our former military personnel and their families."

Their issue is as simple as calling for mandatory funding for veterans' medical services, Hollfelder said. "The detail of legislation (which they hope Congress will eventually pass) is up to them ... We're just the facilitators."

They're gaining an increasingly stronger voice.

"I think this is an important issue," said attorney and County Legislator Edward "Ted" O'Brien, D-Irondequoit, who has been doing some writing for the group. "It's too easy to forget the reality of what veterans have had to sacrifice ... No matter what side of the war (in Iraq) you're on, taking care of veterans is a different issue and one I think we can all agree on."

Ultimately, the group would like to see mandatory funding for veterans' health care on all 2008 ballots nationwide, Hollfelder said.

What separates them from other veterans' organizations, Dowling said, is that they "cater to no one," get no grant funding from the government and are completely independent.

"We're a renegade group," Dowling added with a smile. "And we're all volunteer there's no payroll but we're committed because it's the right thing to do."

To learn more about Veterans to Veterans Connection and its Operation Firing For Effect initiative, go to Web site (or .net or .com).



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