Detectives Form Help Group For Cops Ailing From 9/11

Offers Moral, Logistical Support
Detectives Form Help Group
For Cops Ailing From 9/11


Chet image
The Chief-Leader/Pat Arnow HELPING TO NAVIGATE THE BUREAUCRACY: Retired Dets. Ernest Vallebuona (left) and Michael Valentin (center), along with attorney Chet Lukaszewski, are helping other cops who have contracted serious illnesses as a result of their work at Ground Zero to get expedited treatment and benefits.

Two former NYPD Vice Squad Detectives who suffer from 9/11-related illnesses have created a non-profit group dedicated to helping other police officers cope with the bureaucratic pitfalls of government aid for injuries resulting from exposure to Ground Zero toxins.

Ernest Vallebuona and Michael Valentin recently formed the 9/11 Police Aid Foundation to pass on the experience gained dealing with their illnesses to other officers, who are becoming ill in increasing numbers. They said it is often impossible for a sick police officer to figure out the best place to get help.


'City Means Well, But ...'

"The city wants to help, but they don't really know how to help," said Mr. Vallebuona on Sept. 11. "As far as navigating the maze of bureaucracy, that was a little tough." Both men retired prematurely because of health problems they said stem from their work on the pile at Ground Zero and at the landfill in Fresh Kills. After 9/11, Vice Enforcement cops went to Ground Zero on a full-time basis, which they said has resulted in a disproportionate number of Detectives — as many as 2,000 — being diagnosed with 9/11-related illnesses. "It's kind of hard not to argue the connection," said Mr. Vallebuona. "You never really heard of [active officers] getting cancer before — now it's staggering." A state Health Department WTC Responder Fatalities Investigation found that so far at least 94 of the 664 rescue and recovery workers who have died since 9/11 succumbed to cancer.


While the organization is only a month old, the Web site is up and running and the two Detectives have begun to receive calls for help. Det. Joseph Wittleder, a retired 22-year veteran of the NYPD, came to the 9/11 Police Aid Foundation for help after he was diagnosed with severe lung disease and kidney failure. Detective Wittleder, who required thrice-weekly dialysis treatments, was on the kidney donor list for more than three years. Against the odds, he recently received a kidney donation from the wife of a co-worker in the NYPD Emergency Services Unit. The Police Aid Foundation has been helping Detective Wittleder deal with securing benefits. "It feels great; they are our brothers and sisters," said Mr. Vallebuona. "Police Officers are a rare breed. We relate to each other."


Have DEA's Support


Plans for the non-profit began in earnest several years ago as the two Detectives realized more and more of their comrades were being diagnosed with cancer and respiratory problems. "Our little network kept growing and growing," said Mr. Vallebuona. "The one commonality we had was that we worked at Ground Zero."

The two men worked with the Detectives Endowment Association to find the best treatment for themselves and their friends, sometimes using union office space. "I commend and admire them ... their guts and their determination," said DEA President Michael J. Palladino. "They had the problem of the red tape and the bureaucratic tangles because when they got sick the department was still in denial."


Mr. Valentin soon realized there was no single 9/11 center for treatment. "You're dealing with a whole lot of agencies," said Chet Lukaszewski, a lawyer for the non-profit. "They've been through this vast maze. There is not one 9/11 center. You need somebody who's been through it; they can expedite the process."

Mr. Palladino said the union regularly gets calls from Detectives who are "in a state of limbo" with benefits because of 9/11-related illnesses. The non-profit will serve all police officers, not just Detectives.


Seeking Corporate Donors


The DOE has pledged to donate money to the Police Aid Foundation, which is currently self-financed, and Mr. Valentin said the other unions might follow suit. However, the non-profit is hoping to receive the bulk of its donations from corporate sponsors. Ultimately, the organization plans to expand its mission to become a "Make a Wish" foundation for ailing police officers. "Anything from groceries to the mortgage to one last trip with the family, we are here to help," said Mr. Vallebuona.


Mr. Valentin, who was on the job 11 years, suffers from mesophilioma and an inoperable brain tumor, while Mr. Vallebuona, a 16-year veteran of the NYPD, is recovering from lymphoma. "Knowing that you are going to die sooner than later is not easy, but we want to go out saving the world so the gates of St. Peter will open wide," said Mr. Valentin.

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