Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Mr. Carl Blake, Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Legislative Director
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on H.R. 674; H.R. 1273; H.R. 1900; H.R. 1901; H.R. 2346; H.R. 2696, the “Veterans Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007;” and H.R. 2697. PVA appreciates the efforts of the Subcommittee to address these issues that will benefit today’s veterans and the veterans of tomorrow.
PVA supports H.R. 674, a bill that will repeal the provision of law requiring termination of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans as of December 31, 2009. This Committee was established by Public Law 103-446 on November 2, 1994. The Committee has provided advice to the Secretary and to Congress on the VA’s administration of benefits, healthcare, and other services to minority veterans since that time. They have met with veterans’ service organizations and conducted town hall meetings to provide information and address the concerns of minority veterans. PVA believes that it is a beneficial working group and that it should be retained.
H.R. 1273 will amend Title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to restore plot allowance eligibility for veterans of any war, and restore the headstone or marker allowance for eligible veterans. Previously, Congress passed legislation to help pay for the burial plot and the headstone for a veterans buried in a non-government cemetery. This was intended to take some of the burial workload off of the National Cemetery Administration and allow a veteran to be buried in a family plot with other family members or in their particular religious burial site.
In 1981, Congress eliminated the burial allowance for veterans with non-service connected disabilities. In 1990, Congress passed additional legislation eliminating the grave marker allowance. PVA supports this legislation that will restore both benefits to eligible veterans.
H.R. 1900 will extend eligibility for pension benefits from the VA to veterans who received an expeditionary medal during a period of military service other than a period of war. Expeditionary medals were awarded to the service member who participated in, or was in direct support of, one of the many operations of the U.S. military. Operations such as the invasion of Grenada in 1983 or the invasion of Panama in 1989 and many other special operations were periods of high tension within our military and involved performance of duties that sometimes resulted in serious injury or loss of life. These operations were not a declared period of war or the result of a presidential proclamation. PVA supports the extension of benefits as defined in H.R. 1900.
However, we would like to see these pension benefits extended to all active military that served during those periods, not just those individuals who served in the specific theater. The expeditionary medal was awarded to participants of a military operation, but all military personnel may have been called upon to serve during these critical periods. We feel that all members of the military serving during one of those periods should receive this pension if they meet the other qualifications of this benefit.
PVA supports H.R. 1901 that will extend eligibility for pension benefits for veterans that served in the military during specified periods of military engagement. PVA believes that the restriction for eligibility in H.R. 1901 defined by the phrase “service performed in” should be removed from the legislation so that all service members that served during that time period would be included. As in H.R. 1900, any active military personnel may have been called upon to serve in the nation’s combat effort. We believe that anyone that served during that period should qualify.
PVA supports H.R. 2346. This legislation directs the Secretary to establish a process to determine whether or not a geographic area is sufficiently served by a national cemetery. As the VA plans the expansion of the cemetery system they must ensure that areas that may have been overlooked in that past, or have seen a substantial increase in the population, will be served by a VA cemetery. This projection of future need can also provide helpful information to the states as they decide whether or not to participate in the VA’s cemetery program.
H.R. 2696, the “Veterans Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007”
PVA supports H.R. 2696, the “Veterans Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007.” This bill contains three important components. First, the bill increases the plot or interment allowance from $300 to $400. This will be a welcome benefit for the family members of deceased veterans. The amount was last increased to $300 with the passage of Public Law 107-103 enacted in 2001.
Secondly, PVA approves of the provision to repeal the time limit that states have to file for reimbursement for interment costs. This provision seems to serve no other purpose than to potentially save the VA money. Lastly, PVA supports the provision for grants for operation and maintenance of state veterans’ cemeteries. This program will enhance the ability of states to provide veterans a local burial site in areas where a national cemetery may be many hours away. It will also provide for more burial capacity to the national cemetery system which has closed cemeteries for new burials in some locations.
PVA supports H.R. 2697. This legislation will compliment legislation enacted during the 109th Congress. At that time, the Specially Adapted Housing Grant was made available to service members that were severely injured and still in the military so that they might begin taking steps to modify their homes even before being discharged. This legislation will allow service members awaiting discharge to be eligible for mortgage life insurance. This provision is perfectly reasonable as these men and women will be eligible for the benefit once they are a veteran anyway.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, PVA would once again like to thank you for the opportunity to provide our views on this important legislation. We look forward to working with you to continue to improve the benefits and services available to veterans.
Thank you again. I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.