In Our View: 2 Advances for Veterans

State, federal efforts will boost benefits for America's military heroes



New tasks in journalism are more rewarding than commenting on good news for America’s military veterans. Last week brought two positive stories, one each at the state and national levels.We suspect Americans still fall far short of providing the benefits and services that veterans fully deserve. And we confess a bit of frustration that both of last week’s advances weren’t achieved many years ago. But let’s stay focused on the positive. To wit:

Washington’s Department of Corrections is working hard to identify all veterans in the state’s 12 prisons. This might not sound like a major need, but when facts are examined, it is clear that this will have a profound impact on many people’s lives.

Until a few years ago, only about 4 percent of the state’s approximately 16,000 prisoners had been verified as military veterans. Corrections officials knew this was inaccurate because the national average is about 10 percent. But now, after gathering data from the U.S. Department of Defense and the state Department of Veterans Affairs, corrections officials have verified that rate as 8 percent.

This means more veterans will receive benefits upon release from prison. And in the long run, that benefits the public in many ways, as Corrections Department spokesman Chad Lewis explained: “Incarcerated veterans are uniquely qualified for benefits that help them succeed once they complete their prison sentence. They’ve earned these benefits, and the public is safer when (veterans) have housing and mental-health treatment.”

The casual observer might wonder: How can an incarcerated person not know he or she is a military veteran? Turns out, some don’t understand the official definition of the term, which is pretty simple: anyone who served in the military, whether they experienced combat or not. Others don’t volunteer their veteran status when they’re booked because they’re embarrassed by their situation. Still others don’t reveal the distinction because they’re worried (unnecessarily) that their families could lose their veterans benefits while they’re in prison. In reality, veterans benefits are restricted upon incarceration, but that money can be directed to family members.

Identifying prison inmates as veterans qualifies them for such benefits as veterans treatment courts. Whatever long-term increase in costs to the taxpayer, we suspect, will be more than outweighed by savings achieved when the inmates’ conversion to public life is facilitated. And that new hope is becoming increasingly available to prisoners in our state.

At the federal level, Congress last week stepped beyond its own dysfunction to approve the Veteran Skills to Jobs Act. The Senate passed the measure Wednesday night after House approval, and the bill goes to President Obama for his expected signature. As a result, federal agencies are directed to accept appropriate military training as meeting requirements for providing a federal license. As McClatchy-Tribune reported, “states are responsible for most job licensing, (but) federal occupational licenses can be useful in the maritime, aviation and communications industries.”

U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., the bill’s author, described the legislation as “common-sense and no-cost.”

These advancements for veterans should encourage all Americans as we move closer to fully meeting our duty to look out for military veterans, the ones who served so admirably in looking out for us.