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Gillibrand sees 'uphill battle' to avoid cuts at air base; Senator injects caution into new optimism about jobs, security role at Falls facility

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand injected a dose of caution Monday into new optimism over the future of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, describing it "as still an uphill battle" to avoid major cuts at the facility.

Gillibrand, at D'Youville College in Buffalo announcing legislation to assist returning veterans with education and job assistance, said a major effort remains to block cuts that she fears will result in job losses and threats to national security.

"We're still in the early stages of this battle," the New York Democrat told reporters, "and I hope that we can be successful. But we're going to have to fight very hard."

The senator's comments clouded new hope for the base expressed last week by Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst. A defense authorization bill that would have bolstered the 107th Airlift Wing's chances of survival got considerably stronger as a result of a bipartisan amendment that preserves for a year all 5,100 National Guard slots that the Air Force wanted to eliminate.

The amendment also would bar the Air Force from moving any Air National Guard planes for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

"I'm so happy," Hochul said last week after co-sponsoring the amendment with 17 colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee. "We could have ended up in a much different position without that amendment. It's a big win."

But Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sounded a less cheery tone Monday -- especially about the Niagara Falls facility.

"I'm most concerned about Niagara because we serve National Guard from that base, and the majority of the cuts the Air Force is making is out of the National Guard and Reserve," she said. "We're bearing, unfortunately, the burden of these cuts."

Like Hochul and other base proponents, Gillibrand said she continues to argue in Congress that services at the Niagara Falls base should be considered "invaluable" and that a Department of Homeland Security component should be added to its mission. Base advocates have proposed that it be a counterterrorism training facility for various security personnel.

"I think that's the way to keep the personnel there and the mission there," she said. "I'm going to be working hard to not only make the case, but make it as persuasive as possible."

Hochul said late Monday that the effort to save the base has proved difficult all along. But she also did not back off from her sense that progress has been made.

"If we had not been successful in getting that amendment, we would have been in a much darker era here," he said, calling its passage a "good sign."

Hochul sidestepped a question regarding Gillibrand's characterization of the effort as an "uphill battle."

"No matter what you call it, it's never been an easy task," she said, noting Gillibrand's close cooperation in making the argument in the Senate -- where Hochul said the next step in the process lies.

The senator made her remarks following a D'Youville presentation aiming for improved education and job training for veterans to streamline the certification process for civilian jobs. She noted that veterans return with skills such as driving high-tech vehicles or medical experience and that those skills should be made easier to apply to civilian life.

"We know our veterans have great skill sets, it's just about transitioning them for the job market," Gillibrand said.

New statistics indicate that 12 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are unemployed, the senator said, and that one way to integrate them into the workforce is to streamline the certification process for various skills. Her bill also proposes offering classes for veterans and their spouses at convenient, off-base locations.

In addition, the legislation would require the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service to integrate job-search experts to teach the classes.

Monday's event was not the first time Gillibrand has come to Buffalo to push ideas about helping unemployed veterans. Last year, she hosted a local round table with business and veterans leaders to address veterans' unemployment in Western New York. As a result, Gillibrand helped pass a bipartisan VOW to Hire Heroes Act to address high rates of unemployment among veterans.

Her choice of D'Youville also reflects a high number of veterans studying there. The college has enrolled 230 student veterans and 115 dependents of veterans. The majority are enrolled in the allied health programs, including nursing, physician assistant, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com