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VETERAN OF 3 WARS TO LEAD OFFICE FIGHT FOR ACCREDITATION

When he was 15, back in 1943, Louis R. Palma used his dead brother's birth certificate to sneak into the Navy. He said he was 17, and spent the next three years fighting World War II in the South Pacific.

Now, he faces a battle of a different kind.

Palma, 72, a highly honored Western New York veteran, has been challenged by County Executive Joel A. Giambra to bring Erie County back into the good graces of the nation's largest veterans organization.

It's been two years since the 3 million-member American Legion stripped the Erie County Veterans Office of its accreditation -- meaning that many of the county's 96,000 veterans seeking help with their claims to the federal government were directed elsewhere than the county for the aid they needed. Legion officials would say only that the problems stemmed from personality conflicts with the leadership, which failed to maintain its certification by taking required courses.

That's a problem Giambra has pledged to fix -- and Palma is the one he hopes will do it.

"They did their job for our country. Now we should do our job for them," said Palma, a veteran of both the Navy and the Air Force who served in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Palma's charge to fix the problems in the county Veterans Office has been warmly received by county officials on both sides of the political aisle.

Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, said he has been aware of the problems in the office and is hoping Palma can change things.

And Legislator Jeanne Z. Chase, R-Evans, said she's relieved she will now be able to direct veterans to the county office when they come to her for help.

"It was sad," Chase said. "People would come to me, and I would direct them to the New York State office, or (U.S. Rep.) Jack Quinn's office."

Erie County lost its accreditation with the American Legion -- the chief accreditation for veterans' agencies -- in 1998, according to officials at the federal Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C.

In Albany, at the state's Division of Veterans Affairs, spokesman Harvey J. McCagg said the American Legion accreditation is "very important" to an agency looking to prepare successful claims for veterans.

"Preparing a claim for the Veterans Administration is like a lawyer preparing for a trial," said McCagg. "As an accredited counsel, we are able to access certain records the VA has, in preparing our claims. And if you don't have it (accreditation), you won't be able to stay on top of your claim, to track it through the system."

Palma, a former business manager for the Lakeshore Central School District, said securing full accreditation for Erie County is his "top priority" now.

"The main thing is filing claims. That's most important to the veterans," he said. "I took this job with the understanding I would fix the problems."

As for his underage service in World War II, Palma said he has never regretted it. Nor, he said, does he have any regrets about serving again in the Korean War, then switching to the Air Force for a special assignment delivering C-130s to air bases in Vietnam.

"My father had a problem trying to stop me (in 1943), because he snuck into the Navy when he was 15, too," Palma said. "That was in World War I."

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