Florida Legislature Does Right by Our Veterans

When my father enlisted and then marched off to fight in World War II he left behind his job at Standard Brands, a New York-based company his father also worked for, with little thought of when or if he would return to his job.

During his three years in the European theater, fighting from North Africa, up through Italy, into southern France and then on to Germany, he wrote many letters to his former co-workers. His boss’s secretary typed them out (Dad’s handwriting was often hard to decipher) and then the letter was passed around the office — everyone initialing the typewritten copy after they had read it. I have those letters still and periodically pull them out to read.

When he returned home after the war, Dad picked up where he had left off. While many GIs made use of the G.I. bill to go to college, Dad went back to his job at Standard Brands, where he rose through the ranks during his 30-year career there.

I don’t believe he ever contemplated that his job would not be waiting for him on his return after the war.

With that background in mind, I am outraged when I read of the plight of so many of our servicemen and women, coming back from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, separating from the military and having trouble finding work or being unable to fund their continuing education.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently noted the jobless rate of veterans who served after 9/11 is higher than the general population’s unemployment rate. In 2013, the national average unemployment rate for Gulf War era veterans was 9 percent — compared to 7.3 percent for the rest of the workforce. But for the 18 to 24 age group the jobless rate averaged out at an astounding 21.4 percent — that translates to one out of every five. 

To top that off, it is estimated that each month 900,000 veterans qualify for food stamps. 

The federal G.I. bill in effect since after 9/11 does still help veterans pay for their college expenses — but only at in-state tuition levels. In Florida, public university tuition for in-state students averages about $6,000. Out of state residents pay about $21,000. That’s a heck of a difference.

But kudos to the Florida Legislature which, in a rare show of unanimity, made it a priority this year to pass the Florida G.I. bill in an effort to help.

Senate President Don Gaetz contends its passage makes Florida “the most military-friendly state in the nation.” I can’t speak to whether that’s actually true, but it will go a long way toward showing veterans that we as a state value what they have done for the country.

One of the bill’s major provisions allows honorably discharged veterans — no matter how long they have lived in the state — to go to a state college or university and pay the in-state tuition rate. And it provides funding for deployed members of the National Guard to get a bachelor’s degree online. (Free tuition is already provided to Purple Heart recipients and to the children and spouse of a Florida veteran killed in the line of duty.)

While businesses are already allowed to give veterans hiring preference, the legislation expands that preferential treatment allowance to members of the Florida National Guard and the U.S. Armed Forces Reserves — major players in both Gulf Wars — along with the spouses and parents of disabled or deceased veterans.

The state already waives professional license fees for veterans for a two-year period, but the new law extends that waiver to five years.

Several businesses across the 850 region have been honored for their commitment to hiring our veterans, probably not a surprise because of the legions of military who work in and have retired in our area. Still, my hat is off to those companies for their contributions. And to our local colleges and universities recognized for being “military friendly” schools.

Those who volunteer to serve their country and have fought in America’s longest lasting war should not have to resort to food stamps to eat, wait for medical care or pay exorbitant prices for a better education. They’ve earned rights on the battlefield, which many civilians don’t appreciate since we switched from a military draft to an all-volunteer military. Unlike the Vietnam War, most Americans have not had their lives affected by the Gulf Wars. That makes it easier to forget those who have fought in it.

So, thank you, Florida Legislature for doing the right thing for our veterans. I know my father would be proud of what you have done.

Categories: Opinion