OPINION: Veterans' Service Bill Expanded To Give Better Benefits

By Maryland Senator Roy Dyson

There have been a lot of concerns about the way veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at Walter Reed Army Hospital. This issue has dominated the news and is disgraceful to these great service people. I am very pleased the President has established a bi-partisan commission led by former Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who was severely wounded and knows what the long path to recovery is like.

There also reports that incidents of mental health problems including suicide, drug use and alcoholism are becoming a major problem for these returning veterans. This is obviously something that will get worse as the war continues.

Whether you are for or against these wars, there is nobody who will deny that the men and women fighting for our freedoms overseas are true heroes. We need to do everything in our power to help them.

Last year, the General Assembly recognized this potential tsunami when it passed The Veterans Advocacy and Education Act of 2006 which I was proud to co-sponsor. This bill passed both the Senate and House unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Ehrlich (Chapter 290).

This Act accomplished many worthwhile goals.

Chief among them was that it established an outreach and advocacy program within the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that veterans are informed of available federal and state services, benefits, and assistance. Along with providing much needed assistance to our veterans, this program allows another avenue for issues related to veterans to reach the Governor and the General Assembly.

The 2006 Act also established a Task Force to Study State Assistance to Veterans. The purpose of this task force is to make recommendations on the availability and accessibility of services for veterans, the efficiency of existing services, the feasibility of establishing new services for veterans, and the potential impact of an increased number of veterans returning from military service.

The task force was to have submitted its final report by December 2007, but due to new information related to veterans’ mental and physical health who are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, Senate Bill 873 was introduced this year to address this situation.

This bill, which I am a co-sponsor, was recently heard in my Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. This legislation extends the December 2007 Task Force to May 31, 2009.

The Veterans Advocacy and Education Act of 2006 provided some other valuable services for our veterans.

It established the Veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts Scholarship Program. This program provides Maryland higher education scholarship funds for active duty members of the armed forces who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with members of the reserve of the Maryland National Guard who were activated for these conflicts. The program also makes the spouses and children of these veterans eligible for these scholarships.

Maryland will continue to be proactive in making sure that our veterans receive the best help possible. They deserve nothing less. If you are a veteran and are not receiving quality service, please do not hesitate to contact me at (301) 858-3928 or (301) 994-2826.

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