Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a new set of veterans' benefits Wednesday, even as some Massachusetts military members decried deep cuts Patrick recently made to two state soldiers' homes.
Patrick signed the veterans benefits bill at American Legion Post 294 here. "I hope you will take the signing of this bill today as a small gesture of our profound thanks, and our profound admiration for what you give," he said.
The legislation, passed by lawmakers Tuesday, calls for the state to set aside 3 percent of all state contracts for disabled veterans who own their own businesses.
It also allows veterans to apply for a $500 "Welcome Home" bonus for multiple overseas deployments, an expansion on Massachusetts law that allows soldiers to apply for one $1,000 bonus.
In a nod to the unique aspects of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the legislation also establishes a state committee to study whether or not Massachusetts should provide MRI tests to all National Guard members, before and after deployment. More than 10 percent of American soldiers serving in those two wars suffer from some form of traumatic brain injury.
Legislators also added a section to the bill that allows soldiers currently deployed abroad to vote via e-mail, a provision that's drawn criticism from state voting rights groups. John Bonifaz of the group Voter Action said it's very difficult to guarantee the security of e-mailed ballots.
An aide to the governor said Wednesday that Patrick is relying on Secretary of State William Galvin to ensure the integrity of the soldier electronic voting option.
Speaking before a crowded room of uniformed veterans, Patrick said he was most moved by the families of fallen Massachusetts soldiers. He recalled seeing 18-month-old Avery Van De Geisen at the funeral of her father, Marine Capt. Kyle Van De Giesen.
For them, Patrick said, "this bill creates a program to issue a Medal of Liberty for next of kin of Massachusetts soldiers killed in action."
Van De Giesen was killed in a helicopter collision Oct. 26 over Afghanistan.
The legislation was well-received by Quincy American Legion members whose collective military experience spans 70 years of American overseas conflict.
Paul Ricca, a Navy fire controlman who patrolled Atlantic waters during World War II, called the bill a much needed boost for Massachusetts veterans. "It lets them know they're not forgotten," he said.
"This country has a history of doing that, of forgetting," said Richard Keane. The Quincy veteran served in Germany in the Army's fabled 82nd Airborne Division at the height of the Cold War.
Listen: Gov. Patrick Recalls The Funeral Of Marine Capt. Kyle Van De Giesenhttp://audio.wbur.org/storage/2009/11/news_1111_GOV1.mp3
"Now you have some soldiers going over on deployment two, three, four times," Keane said. "They need more help than I did."
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars remain America's longest continuous military conflicts since the Vietnam war. Their extent, duration and nature — part urban battle, part mountain warfare, part counterinsurgency — make it that much more essential to "give vets all the help they can get," said Marine Corps Sgt. Mark Sherman.
The Hyde Park veteran served two tours of duty in the first Gulf War. Then, he said, "we took care of each other when we were in the service. But there was no real long-term support for after we got out. There's still a long road to go, but this bill is a very important first step."
There are more than 440,000 veterans living in Massachusetts, and that number is certain to grow. Many at the American Legion post walked with crutches or canes and continue to rely on state services, Sherman said.
He applauded a provision in the veterans benefits bill that calls for a study into veterans housing for seniors and expanded capacity at the state-run Soldiers' Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke.
Other veterans who support the bill, however, were deeply critical of the provision.
"The governor's just made cuts to those soldiers' homes," said Jake Comer, former American Legion national commander. "He talked about expanding them, but how can he when he's cut more than $700,000 out of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke?"
The cuts came last month as part of Patrick's attempt to close at $600 million budget deficit. The Holyoke Soldiers' Home lost 4.5 percent of its budget and last week announced it will close its outpatient medical clinic.
Asked why he made cuts to the Soldiers' Home, Patrick said nearby hospitals are able to provide care for some veterans. "We just can't afford to duplicate services right now," he said.
Patrick also cut more than $2 million in assistance to homeless veterans.
"The governor said he's not going to cut veterans services, but these are really painful cuts," Comer said. "We've got young kids giving life and limb. So, every kind of assistance we can give them is essential."
This program aired on November 11, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.