By Donna Reuss
Alexandria, VA – Oh boy, legislation! I bet you can’t wait to read this month’s column, right?!
All kidding aside, to help inform your voting decisions for the elections next month, I wanted to apprise you of some current legislative efforts relating to military servicemembers, veterans, and their families, as well as to encourage your continued monitoring and advocacy.
At any one time, dozens of pieces of legislation are in the works within the United States Congress and Virginia’s General Assembly. Many address veterans’ health care, education, employment, and other military service-related issues. Among the bills currently before Congress are:
- The VA Zero Suicide Demonstration Project Act of 2023 requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) to improve safety and suicide care for veterans;
- Protecting Veterans from Predatory Actors aims to protect veterans who file health and benefit claims from claims services and some law firms that might target them for profit;
- The Military Spouse Hiring Act would expand tax credits for employers hiring qualified military spouses, and
- The Veterans Entrepreneurship Training Act of 2023 codifies a program that teaches servicemembers, veterans, and their families the fundamentals of business management.
In Virginia, governor-appointed members of the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Service Organizations (JLC) sponsored an initiative this year to retain servicemembers and veterans within the Commonwealth in retirement. It would allow all active-duty military retirees to exempt some of their military pension from state tax.
Statistically, veterans are highly employed and educated, and they contribute to their communities, so many states compete for these individuals. Formerly, only those aged 55+ received the tax break in Virginia.
With support from the governor, state senators, and delegates, the initiative became a bill. Citizens then urged their state representatives to support the bill, and their voices were heard. In a special session on September 6, the General Assembly included the bill in its budget. It will become law when the governor signs it.
Of course, The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other veteran groups advocate for legislation to improve the lives of servicemembers, veterans, and their families. As you can see, though, citizen advocacy also can affect these efforts. Another example is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which passed last year. With 15,000 messages sent via the American Legion messaging system VotersVoice alone in the last week before passage, Congress listened. Citizen advocacy helped the PACT Act become law, expanding V.A. health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.
The Virginia General Assembly next meets in January 2024. Its initiatives include expanded tax relief for servicemembers who died on active duty, tuition assistance, and enhanced medical protections for those in the National Guard.
Since 9/11, more than 18,500 Virginia National Guard members have been federally mobilized across the globe and continue to serve around the U.S. on homeland security missions. This is in addition to their role to support the governor in responding to state-level emergencies. Their job is essential, and Guard-related legislation aims to recruit and keep the best within Virginia’s Guard force.
It is easy to stay informed and advocate for those who serve or have served their country and their families. Several online sites let you quickly search for topics; some offer pre-scripted messages to send automatically to your respective representatives.
For federal legislation, go to votervoice.net/AmericanLegion/home. Once signed up as an advocate, the system sends automatic notifications when veterans need support on a pending bill. You need not be an American Legion member, veteran, or servicemember to use this system.
To follow the progress or review the text of any federal legislation, search your topic on congress.gov, an online U.S. Congress legislative information database.
At the state level, you may email your state senators or delegates or visit them in person to thank them or express your views. Enter your zip code at whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov to identify your representatives.
Or check out Virginia’s Legislative Information System at lis.virginia.gov. The site includes a list of all state senators and delegates. Click on a name to obtain their email and other addresses and what bills they sponsored. Use the left vertical box list to search for bills by subject matter or legislative session, using search terms such as “veteran,” “military,” “children,” “mental health,” “education,” “employment,” “suicide.”
But the most important action you can take is to vote. Your voice makes a difference.
Thanks to Bill Aramony, American Legion Post 24 and representative to the JLC for The American Legion Department of Virginia, for his contributions to this article.
If you are a veteran, a veteran’s family member, or know a veteran who needs help, go to Virginia Board Veterans Services at www.dvs.virginia.gov/dvs; dss.virginia.gov/community/211.cgi; contact American Legion Post 24 Veteran Service Officer at [email protected]; or check out the Resources List on the Post 24 website: valegionpost24.com. For crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, dial 988 and Press 1, or text 838255 for the Veterans Crisis Line.