ANNAPOLIS Jim Walker was an African-American pilot from South Carolina during World War II. A member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, he and his fellow pilots were sent to Alabama to train separately from the white airmen.
Walker was shot down over Yugoslavia during the war. Captured, he was held prisoner and considered missing in action until Allied powers swept through the small town where he was held and freed him.
Walker’s cousin, Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, said his story is part of the reason she feels the need for a state Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I think it’s because of people like Jim that we are the country we are today,” Lawlah said. “We have an incredible freedom from war on the soil of America. I think it’s only right we elevate the men and women, who sacrificed their lives in some cases, to a position of decency and respect that they deserve.”
Walker won’t see the benefits of his cousin’s bill. He now lives in California.
Lawlah was one of the 16 Senate co-sponsors of a bill introduced Thursday to create a state Department of Veterans Affairs. The new Cabinet-level department would incorporate the functions of the Maryland Veterans Commission, the Maryland Veterans Home Commission, and the Maryland Military Monuments Commission.
None of those organizations will be eliminated. Instead, they will be placed under the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Donald H. Vandrey, the governor’s spokesman.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s interest in creating the department was chiefly responsible for the bill’s drafting. He listed it as one of his priorities for the 1999 legislative session and mentioned it again at a senior citizen’s rally last week.
There are about 536,000 veterans in Maryland, ranking it 17th nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The department will establish a single point of contact for Marylands veterans to obtain services, the governor said.
“This is a bill with heavy support, virtually no fiscal impact and people in the legislature are generally very, very supportive of veterans’ programs,” Vandrey said.
“I am so happy that Gov. Glendening has finally made this a reality,” Lawlah said. “They (veterans’ associations) have been pushing for this for the longest time and I am so glad this is finally going through.”
The current state veterans’ commission focuses on acquiring more land for cemeteries and maintaining monuments, said retired Army Col. Charles Williams of the Maryland Center for Veteran’s Education and Training.
More attention needs to be paid to those who return from war with altered minds and serious injuries, Williams said. You can’t just pawn those people off on Veterans Affairs’ hospitals because the hospitals can’t handle it all, Williams said.
“We need an organization to focus on the total package,” Williams said. “In fact, we’d really like to be in the forefront for helping determine what the organization will be doing.”
The American Legion of Maryland has already begun advising the governor about the proposed department, said Jack McLaughlin, a Legion spokesman.
“This is something we’re very much in favor of,” McLaughlin said. “It’s going to consolidate a lot of duplication in state government.”
No budget has been proposed for the department, yet. But Vandrey said bills like this do not generate large costs. The existing offices will do the work, Vandrey said. The chief expenses will be for salaries for the secretary and staff.
The department will give veterans one place to go to for anything they need. The governor felt the current array of services was too widely distributed, Vandrey said.
Sen. Donald F. Munson, D-Washington, decided to sponsor the bill because he saw the need for such an organization at the county level and felt a state agency was the next logical step.
“I didn’t have to fight in World War II, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War and I think it’s only because of those people who fought and died that I can be a senator today in a free county. I greatly appreciate that sacrifice,” Munson said.