State bill would increase support for veterans

Kendall Hatch

As ceremonies honoring veterans take place across the country, a symbolic bill that ramps up support for military veterans is expected to hit the governor's desk today after being passed in both state legislative chambers yesterday, state officials said.

"This is a significant step toward thanking our veterans," said state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, who said the bill was passed yesterday in House and the Senate and should be passed on to Gov. Deval Patrick today.

"It's been said that the strength of our future military depends on the support of current and former soldiers," she said. "It's important to honor those in the military and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

The bill, which lawmakers say is "cost neutral," will provide additional benefits to veterans, such as an expanded Welcome Home Bonus system for soldiers returning from tours of duty, opportunities to substitute relevant military training and experience for state certification requirements, and preference for state contracts for disabled veteran-owned businesses - similar to those given to companies owned by women and minorities.

"Massachusetts has really been a leader" in offering veterans benefits, said state Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, who serves on the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

"The least we can do for our soldiers," she said, "is provide them with opportunities when they return home.

The bill proposes expanding the bonus program for returning soldiers, which currently pays $1,000 after a first tour of duty. Under the new bill, soldiers would be offered the traditional bonus as well as an additional $500 for every subsequent tour.

Servicemen and women would also be allowed the opportunity to use training they receive in the military to obtain state permits and certifications in various fields.

"It's just great. This enhances services to our veterans," said state Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow. "This allows a kind of re-entry that our veterans deserve."

The bill also includes measures that would make it easier for veterans to cast absentee ballots and aims to establish programs to reduce the number of homeless veterans, such as building group homes for elderly veterans.

"One in three homeless individuals in Massachusetts is a veteran. ... It's a real concern," Dykema said. "There is going to be a huge need for this type of housing."

State Rep. Pam Richardson, D-Framingham, said she is pleased the bill includes a measure ensuring that city and town clerks will provide municipal veterans agents with complete lists of veterans living within their jurisdiction so they can be pro-active in offering support.

"This is allowing us to help those who are putting their lives on the line every day to protect our country," she said. "Resources are tight, but it's still important to honor those that are serving and protecting us."

"I've had a number of veterans in Framingham come up to me frustrated that the veterans services agent didn't have a complete list," Richardson said. "They felt that a lot of veterans were slipping through the cracks."

The bill also aims to provide better social support to veterans returning home and to families that have lost loved ones in battle. Soldiers will undergo cognitive and neuropsychological testing before and after tours of duty.

"This provides for a before-and-after snapshot," Dykema said.

A frequent topic of concern that Dykema said she has encountered is the proper detection and treatment of brain injuries suffered by soldiers during their tours of duty.

The bill also seeks to offer broader support to families of soldiers killed abroad. The bill also establishes the Massachusetts Medal of Liberty, to be awarded to the families of servicemen and women killed in action.

State Rep. Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough, said she is pleased with the bill.

"I think that anything we can do to help our soldiers, it's incumbent on us to do that," she said. "They are the people defending our freedom. ... This is the perfect time to honor our veterans and there is no better way to do it."

The MetroWest Daily News