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Lawmakers renew fight to call retired reservists 'veterans'

Apr. 22, 2013 - 03:56PM   |  
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The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will move again this week to pass symbolic legislation allowing retired National Guard and reserve component members to officially be called “veterans.”

This will be the third time the committee has passed a measure that offers no extra pay or additional benefits — just the ability to stand and be recognized publicly on Veterans Day, Memorial Day or other ceremonial occasions.

“Today, a reservist can successfully complete a Guard or reserve career but not earn the title of ‘Veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States,’ said Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., a retired National Guard command sergeant major and chief sponsor of HR 679, The Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act of 2013.

Not all such retirees earn the title of veteran because because the legal definition of that term requires being mobilized to active duty for federal service under Title 10 of the U.S. Code for duty other than drills and annual training.

The bill is scheduled for a vote on Thursday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s disability assistance and memorial affairs panel, where unanimous passage is expected, aides said.

Walz estimates there are 280,000 former Guard and reserve retirees who are not, technically, veterans, which prevents them from getting the same recognition as someone with a shorter period of service.

“These service members could have spent their time and talents doing other things,” Walz said. “They could have spent their weekends enjoying time with their families. Instead, they chose to prepare to defend our country.”

Part of the problem in passing the measure is that the Veterans Affairs Department does not support it, out of concern that passage would make retired Guard and reserve members think they are eligible for benefits they have not earned.

“VA does not support this bill because it represents a departure from active service as a foundation for veterans’ status,” the department said in a statement provided to the House committee.

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While acknowledging that no new benefits would result if this became law, VA says it “would equate longevity of reserve service with the active service long ago established as the hallmark for veteran status.”

Some major veterans’ groups don’t see the problem.

Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest organization for combat veterans, “strongly supports this legislation,” said Raymond Kelley, director of the group’s national legislative service, who notes it is possible for someone to be receiving military retired pay, health care and other benefits but still not be considered a veteran under the “letter of the law.”

The legal definition creates what Robert Norton, deputy government relations director for the Military Officers Association of America, calls a “strange situation” where National Guard members who served on military orders in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, on security duties along the southwest border or responding to hurricanes or oil spills “are not deemed to be veterans.”

“It is deeply embarrassing,” for those veterans that they “are not authorized to stand and be recognized as veterans during Veterans Day and other patriotic celebrations,” Norton said.

“Any man or woman who chooses to enlisted and serve their country deserves, at a minimum, to be called a veteran,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a statement.

“If a veteran devotes years of his or her life to being ready to serve at a moment’s notice, it is admirable and selfless. These men and women served honorably and should not be penalized simply because their country did not call them up to active duty for the full requisite period,” IAVA said.

The nation’s largest veterans’ organization, the American Legion, has no position on the bill but said in a statement it recognized that the legislation “would provide a purely honorific title.”

Disabled American Veterans also has not taken a position on the bill.

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