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Witness Testimony of Mr. Alec S. Petkoff, American Legion, Assistant Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present The American Legion’s views on the issues being considered by the Subcommittee today. The American Legion commends the Subcommittee for holding a hearing to discuss these important topics.

H. R. 674

To amend title 38, United States Code, to repeal the provision of law requiring termination of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans as of December 31, 2009.

H.R. 674 seeks to repeal the provision of law requiring termination of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (ACMV) by December 31, 2009.  The American Legion supports the repeal of the sunset provision for the ACMV.

ACMV was created to advise the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on the administration of The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) benefits and services for minority veterans.  The Advisory Committee is responsible for reviewing reports and studies on compensation, health care, rehabilitation, outreach and other VA services.  It also assesses the needs of minority veterans and makes recommendations to improve programs established to meet the identified needs.  As VA continues to enhance and create new programs to better serve the needs of minority veterans, the need for the Advisory Committee will always remain relevant. 

Given the growing diversity of the veteran population, to include an increasing number of women veterans, ACMV has a profound role in ensuring that existing and future VA programs are sensitive to the needs of this diverse population and ensuring that VA is effective in its outreach efforts to make minority veterans aware of the benefits and services available to them. 

H. R. 1273

To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to restore plot allowance eligibility for veterans of any war and to restore the headstone or marker allowance for eligible persons.

H.R. 1273 seeks to restore plot allowance eligibility and to restore the headstone or marker allowance to reflect the criteria used before The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 (OBRA).  OBRA limited the payment of a burial plot allowance only to veterans who are indigent or who are in receipt of VA disability compensation or pension.  It also eliminated the headstone or marker allowance. 

The American Legion fully supports this legislation that would restore these benefits.  The American Legion saw these cuts in benefits as a shameless cost saving measure that never should have happened. 

H. R. 1900

To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend eligibility for pension benefits under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to veterans who received an expeditionary medal during a period of military service other than a period of war.

This bill, if enacted, would amend title 38, United States Code, to extend eligibility for pension benefits to veterans who received an expeditionary medal during a period of military service other than a period of war.

The American Legion does not have a position regarding this bill.

H. R. 1901

To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend eligibility for pension benefits under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to veterans who served during certain periods of time in specified locations.

This bill, if enacted, would amend title 38, United States Code, to extend eligibility for pension benefits to veterans who served during certain periods of time in specified locations.  Specifically, this bill would extend eligibility for non service-connected pension to those with active duty military, naval or air service in the Republic of Korea during the period of February 1, 1955 to August 4, 1964; in the Republic of Korea during the period of May 8, 1975 to August 1, 1990; in Lebanon or Grenada during the period of August 24, 1982 to July 31, 1984; in Panama during the period of December 20, 1989 to January 31, 1990.  

The American Legion supports the intent of this legislation but strongly recommends extending pension eligibility to those who served during the aforementioned periods regardless of the location of such service.  The wartime service periods currently recognized do not (with the exception of Vietnam for the period of February 28, 1961 to August 4, 1964) have such service location requirements.  The inclusion of such requirements is overly restrictive and contrary to the spirit and intent of the non service-connected pension benefit.

H. R. 2346

To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a process for determining whether a geographic area is sufficiently served by the national cemeteries located in that geographic area.

The American Legion fully supports the intent of this legislation.  The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has a long tradition of providing burial and memorial services to veterans.  The American Legion supported P.L. 108-109, the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003, authorizing The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) to establish new national cemeteries to serve veterans in the areas of: Bakersfield, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Jacksonville, Florida; Sarasota County, Florida; southeastern Pennsylvania; and Columbia-Greenville, South Carolina. All six areas have veteran populations exceeding 170,000, which is the threshold VA has established for new national cemeteries.

The American Legion supports the establishment of additional national and state veterans cemeteries and columbaria wherever a need for them is apparent and have petitioned Congress to provide required operations and construction funding to ensure VA burial in a national or state veterans cemetery is a realistic option for veterans and their eligible dependents.

The American Legion does have some concern about Section 1(b) Consideration of Alternatives.  While we fully support innovative ways to provide burial space in areas where space is limited (islands, i.e. Puerto Rico) or where the environment is prohibitive to the traditional constructive designs for national cemeteries (deserts, i.e. southwest U.S.) we are concerned about the introduction of VA mausoleums.  Our concern is that the veterans of an area being considered for a mausoleum be consulted first as to the fittingness of a mausoleum as a final resting place.  A mausoleum would have to conform to the high standard of being a national shrine and of being a place that veterans want to be laid to rest in.

H. R. 2696

“Veterans Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007”

The American Legion supports the intent of Section 2(a) to increase the burial plot allowance.  Under the National Cemeteries Act (P.L. 95-73) 13 percent of the cost of a burial plot was covered.  The current allowance of $300 covers on average 3 percent of costs.  The American Legion suggests it be raised to $670 to bring the amount closer to the original 13 percent and that that amount be adjusted yearly for inflation by tying the increased allowances to the Consumer Price Index.  

The American Legion also supports the intent of Section 2(b) that would repeal the time limitation for filing for reimbursement.

The American Legion does not have a position on grants related to operating and maintaining a state veterans cemetery.

H.R. 2697

Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance Eligibility Expansion

H.R. 2697 addresses the expansion of Veterans Mortgage Life Insurance (VMLI), a VA program offering $90,000 of mortgage life insurance to severely disabled veterans who are awarded grants by the VA for specially adapted housing, to include members of the military service departments who meet similar disability requirements, yet who are still in an active duty status either due to a lengthy separation process for various reasons, or who are retained in such status due to their occupational specialties being needed by their service department or due to other manpower requirements.

The American Legion supports this proposal as these individuals obviously meet the same criteria as is used for those presently insured under the VMLI program. The only difference here is that this group is not yet separated from service, which is a requirement of the current statute. We believe the justification here is, in essence, the same and that these individuals should also have the option of being insured under the VMLI program.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, this concludes my testimony.  I appreciate the opportunity to present The American Legion’s views on these important issues.