By Rep. Anita Kulik
This past Memorial Day was particularly impactful as most of last year’s celebrations were put on hold by the pandemic. This year, though, most of the ceremonies in our area were back, at least in some format, and we were again remembering those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. While some parades did not occur or were limited in scope, some events, such as the visits to the cemeteries, and the wonderful dedication at VFW Post 402 in Coraopolis, were truly inspiring.
As I visited cemeteries and memorials with our local veterans, I could not help reflecting on this past year. So many of us, myself included, have referred to 2020 as the hardest year we have witnessed. The pandemic, the political dissension, the social unrest, and the loss of lives and livelihoods all took their toll on us. But as I spent time with our veterans and looked over the hundreds of flags marking the graves of our soldiers, I realize we should be asking our veterans what year, what month, what day was their hardest. Knowing all they went through in the service, I can only imagine what their answers would be.
The House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee is, I believe, by far the most bi-partisan committee in the State House. There is always a sense of agreeability when it comes to matters of importance to veterans and first responders. I am most proud to be a member of this committee and to attempt to help our veterans and our first responders.
At the May 24th meeting, 10 bills and two resolutions passed out of the committee, all on matters to help veterans and their families.
HB 1427 and HB 1389 propose to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to assist veterans in obtaining their Federal VA pensions and benefits, and to add funds to the existing Pennsylvania Veterans Trust Fund which provides grants to veteran organizations. Many of these organizations have struggled, as their fundraising efforts have been very limited. Many of them increased their assistance programs, draining funds that they may have had on hand.
The intent of HB 1055 is to protect a veteran’s discharge information. Currently, a person can obtain access to the record for a period of 75 years after the document was filed.
This bill will increase the time to 85 years. As we now tend to live longer, this is only a logical effort.
HB 1057 seeks to add the Navy Club of the United States of America as a voting member of the state’s veteran’s commission. While this measure easily passed out of committee, it stirred a lot of discussion from members of the committee who themselves are veterans.
It was agreed that further work should be done to include other, sometimes overlooked groups of veterans, including women veterans, for example.
My push for the inclusion of women’s groups was based on the many discussions I have had with female veterans, who are often forgotten.
Changes were also considered towards educational opportunities for veterans, active military and their families. Under current law, military personnel and their families are charged in-state tuition rates for colleges and universities under the “first day of the semester” requirements.
This can be problematic for our military families. HB 941 would help by allowing the use of the date of deposit rather than the first day of the semester.
Increased costs for services are also a concern, and two of the bills considered seek to help with costs. HB 1421 would increase the daily team pay from $150 to $250 for the Veteran Service Organization honor guard burial detail at our three National cemeteries. HB 1220 would increase the State Blinded and Paralyzed Veterans Pension Program payment from $150 to $200 per month. While this is a minimal increase, any additional assistance is helpful and necessary.
The mental health of our soldiers and veterans is of great concern. Suicide among veterans continue to increase at an alarming rate. HR 103 urges Congress to pass H.R. 1656 which establishes the “Treatment and Relief Through Emerging and Accessible Therapy for PTSD Act.” I am also advocating for increased efforts to recognize and treat PTSD for our first responders.
As the Legislature continues to work through the budget and discuss how best to use the monies from the Federal government, we must push for these funds to go where they are most needed.
Small business aid, childcare and education costs, senior assistance, front line worker and healthcare needs and veteran and first responder funding must all be part of the conversation. Of course, there are also many other issues that are important to Pennsylvanians and must be considered and addressed. It is important to keep reaching out to your state representatives and senators on any of these matters, and I encourage you to do so.
A Kennedy resident and attorney, State Rep. Anita Kulik has served the 45th district of Pennsylvania since 2017.