ANNAPOLIS – Veterans are returning from war unaware there are money and programs available to help them, said top House leaders, who proposed a bill to provide scholarships and information outreach to service members.
The bill, HB 3, is one of the top priorities of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who said Maryland has about 2,700 soldiers fighting in Iraq. The bill was heard by two House committees Wednesday.
Many of the people serving in Iraq are family oriented and are in danger of losing their jobs when they come back, Busch said.
“They don’t know exactly what benefits are available to them,” he said.
The bill will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to assure veterans are informed of benefits for which they qualify. It will also provide scholarships for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their children through the Higher Education Commission budget for the next five years. The measure creates a task force to review veterans’ issues.
Scholarship recipients will have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, according to the bill.
Maryland ranks 46th in the amount of benefits it provides for veterans. The state annually provides $6,881 per veteran per disability, lower than the national average of $8,065, according to the 2003 VA Benefits Annual Report.
The bill will also rename the Veterans Service Program the Veterans Advocate Office, which will be charged with promoting the interest of veterans, their dependents and their survivors and letting them know about benefits they qualify to receive.
At the hearing, Jodi Sohl, widow of a Desert Storm Veteran, told lawmakers she struggled to raise four children after her husband died more than 10 years ago. She only recently discovered that she didn’t have to pay a property tax after joining Gold Star Wives, an organization for the widows of veterans.
She supports this bill, because it will let veterans and their families know about, “all the benefits we should have received, but we didn’t.”
Thomas Insley, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, recently discovered that he had health benefits because of his service.
He also remembered colleagues who lost jobs, ended up on welfare or couldn’t afford sending their children to college after they returned from fighting in the Vietnam War. Some of his friends could have benefited from the bill, he said.
Capt. Aaron Smith, knew of 10 of his 45 soldiers who were pulled out of college mid-semester after receiving orders to fight for their country in the war in Iraq. He saw the same problems among them as Insley did among his friends.
“I’m concerned about my troops,” Smith told the committee.
In an interview, Sen. John Astle, D-Anne Arundel, said he is also concerned about veterans. A member of the newly formed Veterans Caucus, he served in the Gulf War.
“We have the obligation to provide the support for (veterans) when they come back.”
Committee member Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, questioned why the scholarship only lasts for five years and why recipients have to maintain a 3.0, but plans to vote for some version of the bill.
“I will fight for the passage of this bill with my last breath,” said Davis. “This bill is long overdue.”