By STEVE RANSON
Lahontan Valley News
After years of false hopes and disappointments from Congress, military personnel with at least 20 years of service who did not spend more than 179 consecutive days on federal active duty received an early Christmas present from both Congress and the president.
President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 16 legislation known as the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 that grants veteran status for National Guard soldiers and airmen and reservists from all branches of service.
Earlier this month, the 114th Congress approved legislation to expand the legal definition of a veteran for guardsmen and reservists who honorably serve or had served in the military for 20 years but were never called up for federal active duty for an extended period of time.
VICTORY FOR VETERANS
“This legislation is a victory for veterans. While we still have work to do, I am proud of how we have moved the ball forward in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a retired National Guard sergeant major.
Since first coming to Congress, Walz — along with members of the Nevada delegation to include Sen. Dean Heller, outgoing senator and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Congressmen Mark Amodei and Joe Heck, both Army veterans — has fought for this legislation to honor guardsmen and reservists.
In Nevada for example, the state recognizes guardsmen and reservists as veterans without the requirement of 179 days of federal active duty. No one, though, welcomed the news more than Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general for Nevada.
“I still think it falls somewhat short, but it is a step in the right direction,” he said in an email to the Lahontan Valley News. “A person in the guard or reserves who spends 20 years of good service at a minimum would get around 1,260 days on duty (63 days times 20 years) or about 3.5 years of honorable service.
“I know all enlistments are now for eight years (active, guard and reserve), but if you can manage that as a period of two to three years active duty enlistment and spend the remainder in the IRR (Individual Readiness Reserve), you are considered a veteran even if you never leave the United States. So you can see the disparity in the systems.
“Lastly, I don’t know of any guard member that only does the one weekend a month and two weeks a year anymore. I think the average nationwide is well over a 100 days for the average guard member.”
Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veteran Services, said the legislation provides for no additional benefits other than permitting those who are entitled to retired pay for nonregular service to be referred to as veterans.
“Nevada is ahead of the federal government in acknowledging members of the Guard and Reserve as veterans,” she said. “In fact in 2013 Gov. (Brian) Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 266, which established that in Nevada members of the National Guard and Reserve forces are defined as ‘Veterans’ if they have been assigned to duty for a minimum of six continuous years, even if they are not military retirees.”
Sen. Dean Heller said the passage of the bill and the president’s signature “have been a long time coming.” He said guardsmen and reservists take the same educational courses and perform the same type of training.
“I am very grateful to honor those who honor their country,” Heller said in a phone interview with the LVN. “This will serve them well. These men and women work hard and serve hard. They did what they had to.”
Likewise, Amodei said Walz’s legislation bill is common sense legislation and lawmakers persevered to pass this law.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Amodei, who represents Congressional District 2 in Northern Nevada. “The folks in the Guard and Reserve will now be acknowledged.”
Both Reid and Heck did not comment on the bill’s passage.
NO EXTRA BENEFITS
The National Guard Association of the United States has been a big proponent of attaining veterans status for guardsmen and reservists.
“The current definition has long been out of date,” said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, NGAUS president. “It fails to recognize the deterrence value of training and readiness to our national security. Many of those affected underwent arduous, even dangerous, training. They helped win the Cold War. Others worked in direct support of those who did deploy. Yet our nation tells them that they aren’t veterans.”
NGAUS vigorously pushed for the change for six years. It easily passed in the House in every session only to be halted in the Senate by fears that an expansion of the definition would raise the cost of veteran entitlement programs.
The House and Senate actually approved the change last year, but the language was not identical. This forced the two chambers to come up with a compromise provision.
John Goheen, director of Communications for NGAUS, served on active duty and worked alongside guardsmen and reservists.
“All of us should be called veterans. We all served,” he said, adding many guardsmen and reservists served with distinction.
Because of the provision of the law, Goheen said the newly minted veterans will not be eligible for additional benefits, a point echoed by Miller.
“However, neither the federal nor the state legislation affects eligibility at our cemeteries or at the Nevada State Nursing home,” Miller pointed out. “Our cemeteries and nursing home must follow federal eligibility guidelines in order to receive federal reimbursement. This legislation did not change current federal law which only permits National Guard and Reserve members to be buried at the cemeteries if they have served two continuous years on active duty, died while in the line of duty, or if they were officially retired from the guard of reserve.”
Miller also said a veteran must have had 90 days of active duty military service to receive care at a state veterans home.
LAW AFFECTS THOUSANDS
Retired Nevada Army Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Willson said the bill will affect millions of guardsmen and reservists across the United States, and thousands of military personnel in Nevada who never worked in an AGR (Active Guard Reserve) full-time federal status or deployed for more than 179 consecutive days.
Willson said not too many guardsmen deployed to Vietnam although the Nevada Air Guard received orders to activate airmen when the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo in 1968. Fewer than 51,000 Guardsmen received a call-up to Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The massive deployments, though, began in 2002 and 2003 when the military deployed both active duty and reservists to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Retired Nevada Army Guard Maj. James M. Ludlow of Fallon spent 22 years in the National Guard but never deployed more than 179 days. During his career, he commanded several Carson City units and traveled overseas numerous times for training including to the Republic of Korea and Panama.
“It bothered me a little bit,” Ludlow said about the federal government’s lack of recognition for guardsmen and reservists. “People who served only two years in active duty were called veterans,” said Ludlow, an engineering officer who has the equivalent of more than six years of military service. “When I served in the Guard, we were eligible for federal call-up.”
Ludlow said he was glad when he heard Congress passed the legislation and the president signed it.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joe Dolan of Carson City spent 41 years in the Nevada Army Guard, most of that time as a state technician. Although technicians wear the uniform and must take the same courses as their active-duty counterparts, they are considered as civilian state — not federal — employees. Most technicians work in Carson City, Reno and Las Vegas.
“This is certainly good news,” said Dolan, who served as both an administrative and safety officer.
Overall, Miller said the legislation is important for the recognition.
“I personally would like to see the federal government expand eligibility for burial and nursing home benefits to all those who serve in the Guard and Reserve … not just our retirees,” she said. “These patriotic men and women volunteered to serve our nation and our state in times of both restless peace and war; the fact that they were not called up to do so in no way detracts from their willingness to serve.”