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Good News For Oregon Vets

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Well-planned offensive pushes veterans agenda in Oregon

by Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian

Sunday June 21, 2009, 9:19 PM

Oregon soldiers will find it easier to avoid repossessions, keep their jobs, stay in college, get a home loan and spend time with their families because of the 2009 Legislature.

New laws deliver more legal and logistical support than hard cash from the state's strapped coffers.

Eight years of combat by the Oregon National Guard created wide political support. But the passage of 19 new laws, and another five awaiting the governor's signature, has less to do with young patriots than with middle-aged military veterans in key positions who, like a stealth army, have brought the full weight of their personal experience to the fore.

New laws to benefit Oregon veterans

Legislation approved includes:

• Unpaid family leave for spouses of deploying service members.

• Making May 8 Military Families Appreciation Day.

• Prohibiting discrimination against employees because of their military service.

• Allowing for payment of damages and attorney fees to service members suing under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

• Protecting discharge records from accidental disclosure.

• Offering reduced tuition to out-of-state vets attending Oregon universities.

• Eliminating post-9/11 service requirements for tuition waivers for dependents of those killed in action or 100 percent disabled.

On the governor's desk:

• Designating U.S. Highway 97 as World War II Veterans Historic Highway.

• Placing designated veteran service officers on college campuses.

• Deleting the 15-year limit on veterans' use of preference in public employment.

From the governor's top military aide, a combat veteran who has deployed three times since 2003, to the attorney general, who was the only Marine in his freshman class at Yale, an aggressive new network of veterans has propelled much of the agenda. Gov. Ted Kulongoski plotted the strategy for months, usually en route to mobilizations and military funerals.

"I don't think there has been anything like this in 70 years," says Jim Willis, Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs director. "This is very personal."

For the last three sessions, conflicting priorities and private bills by traditional veterans groups so stymied legislators that almost none passed, advocates say. For this session, Kulongoski wanted a single veterans agenda and appointed an Oregon Air National Guard officer, Maj. Paul Evans, to bring everyone in line.

The two men had met during Evans' failed 2006 bid for the state Senate. Evans, a former Monmouth mayor who handed out dog tags instead of campaign buttons, had deployed twice to Iraq and left for Afghanistan before the campaign ended. The governor traveled through a November storm to attend his going-away party. After Evans lost, Kulongoski asked him to serve as his military aide.

Evans said the governor wanted to avoid Vietnam-era delays in helping veterans and he wanted to capitalize on support from the Oregon Guard's repeated deployments. But he also knew the state's health care, education and employment systems were maxed out.

One solution was to help vets get the Veterans Affairs benefits they'd earned but hadn't used, freeing up capacity elsewhere in the system. Only 80,000 of the 351,000 veterans in Oregon receive federal benefits, valued at $1.12 billion. That means another $4 billion in benefits is out there.

"But finding veterans is like finding salmon," Evans said. "They move. They don't want to be counted. They don't want to be caught."

Task force with teeth

The governor put Evans in charge of a 27-member task force to reach those vets and find ways to improve education, health care, housing and retirement for each generation of veterans from World War II to Iraq.

Evans scheduled six town hall meetings to develop the blueprint. He wound up holding 24 town halls -- with 530 people showing up. And as it traveled the state, the task force tightened around a core of veterans that volunteer member Mike Burton, a Portland State University vice provost, called "a band of brothers."

The task force filed a 279-page report in December with 39 recommendations, later narrowed to 24. Nineteen have become law, and five others await the governor's signature. The governor also signed an executive order creating one of the most aggressive outreach programs in the country, setting up a post card and Web site system to help vets get information about benefits and services if they have any contact with a state agency.

"Considering the economy, we've done pretty darn good," said Kevin O'Reilly, of the Oregon chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Nearly 70 other bills not advanced by the task force never made it out of legislative committee, including two new veterans homes and boosting property tax exemptions for disabled vets. Mac MacDonald, of the United Veterans Groups of Oregon, characterized the session overall as "disappointing."

Eight of the laws are memorials that merely allow Congress to act on a measure. But Willis say they go beyond the usual "feel good" memorials because U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio, David Wu and Kurt Schrader, and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, have committed to introducing bills. Chief among them: the 90-day soft landing for returning Guard members that Wyden says he will introduce this summer.

Task force member Burton, who served in the Legislature and was the CEO of Metro, said when he first ran for public office in the 1970s, a friend advised him to downplay his Air Force service, including two years of combat in Vietnam. Burton said working on the task force allowed him to acknowledge and honor the education, leadership and experience he had earned serving.

"I feel better about this outcome and its impact than any legislation I've been involved with," Burton said.

Kroger seeks firepower

Two new laws prohibit actions such as evicting soldiers' families, repossessing their cars while they are deployed, or firing or retaliating against a service member at work. Both are already covered by long-standing federal laws. But they were brought forward by Attorney General John Kroger, who wanted the added firepower of taking people to court.

"Unless you can sue people who engage in civil rights violations," he said, "it's hard to get them to stop."

Kroger met with the governor's task force before he was elected. And on one of his first days in office, he sent staff members an e-mail asking for volunteers who were interested in veterans' issues. A self-described troublemaker in high school ("I drank and skipped school), Kroger joined the Marines at 17.

Being a Marine was "an extraordinary experience," Kroger said. "I think the Marine Corps taught me how to think, how to figure out an objective, and go from there."

He also learned, after enrolling in Yale only nine days after his discharge, how difficult it was to adjust to civilian life. "It took me a year to find ways to conform, and that was in peacetime."

Two of his staff attorneys jumped at the e-mail. Senior Assistant Attorney General Paul Sundermier has worked on cases from the spotted owl to civil racketeering, but he also had served as a military police officer in 1966 who couldn't wear his uniform hitchhiking home. He had battled for VA benefits on behalf of his disabled father and knew the financial pressure on military families from his daughter and son-in-law's service.

His close friend and co-worker David Kramer, in charge of employment litigation for the state, is also a retired Air Force Reserve colonel who served as a lawyer on active duty and the reserves, prosecuting and defending airmen and helping local reservists navigate day-to-day legal problems.

Meeting over dinner or at home (they're neighbors), the two men focused on consumer protection and employment and wrote two bills that would give the state the ability to sue on behalf of veterans. They say Kroger listened for five minutes, stood up and said, "Let's do it."

Advocates say it will take at least two more sessions to pass all the task force recommendations. They say the task force has been so successful that the Legislature is expected to create three new ones: on transportation, women's health and reintegration. They credit a swath of legislators, veterans and nonveterans alike, for the nearly unanimous passage of such measures.

But combat veteran Rep. Greg Matthews, D-Gresham, said the nearly 3,000 Oregonians heading to Iraq this summer with the Oregon National Guard have greatly helped.

"This has been an amazing session," he said.


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