Monday, June 29, 2009

Oregon Senator to introduce key legislation to benefit military returning from deployment

Above: Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) met with members of the Oregon National Guard leadership, Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Family Support Groups at Portland State University on June 29, 2009 to review new legislation he plans to introduce to Congress on July 5, which will provide a “soft landing” for military members returning from deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy, Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Office).

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) announced on June 29 he will introduce legislation to Congress which will provide a “soft landing” for military members returning from deployment.

He made the announcement at a roundtable meeting attended by members of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and Oregon National Guard leadership at Portland State University in downtown Portland.

“We need a transition from the trauma of combat to the serenity of home in Oregon,” Wyden said. “And this is part of the promise our state made to take care of our troops.”

The Senator said he plans to introduce the bills to Congress following the July 4 recess.

The five separate bills include provisions which will help servicemembers wounded in combat to find employment within their particular service; expand on key components of the Military Family Leave Act; enhance mental health counseling and treatment for returning servicemembers; and help veterans make informed healthcare decisions about their local VA hospital by providing patients with a semi-annual ‘report card’ of the facility.

The key legislation of the group is the Soft Landing Reintegration Act of 2009, which allows servicemembers deployed in a homeland defense mission for more than 180 days to remain on active duty for up to 90 days following their return. The legislation allows for the continuation of entitlements and pay, as well as access to reintegration services.

Maj. Gen. Raymond F. Rees, The Adjutant General, Oregon National Guard, said these separate pieces of legislation are important to returning soldiers because deployed troops need time to transition back to their jobs and families.

“It can’t be ‘we’re back and everything is perfect’,” Rees said about troops who return home from a deployment. “This legislation certainly will help.”

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah "Miah" Washburn, a member of the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team, said between Oregon’s reintegration programs and the proposed legislation Wyden will bring before Congress, Oregon has the best care in the nation for returning veterans.

“The programs we have now are significantly better, and are more care-intensive,” he said.

Washburn’s most recent deployment was with the Oregon Army National Guard’s 41st Brigade Combat Team to Afghanistan in 2005. He said the strain of the deployment cost him his marriage.

“That three month period which allows soldiers to readjust is critical,” he said.

Jim Willis, Director of Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs, who is himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, said servicemembers of his generation were not properly looked after upon their return. He said the public not only hated the war, but they hated the individuals fighting the war.

“I think people have learned to love the warrior even though they hate the war,” he said.

With nearly 3,000 Oregon citizen-soldiers set to depart for Iraq within a month, Willis said the introduction of this legislation on a federal level is important.

“We’ll be able to decompress, reintegrate, and help our warriors move on at exactly the time they need it,” Willis said.

Former Oregon Army National Guardsman, Luke Wilson, said he wished the Wounded Warrior Retention Act was in place when he returned from Iraq in 2004. Wilson, who was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while deployed to Iraq with the Oregon Army National Guard’s 2nd Infantry, 162nd Brigade, spent a year of grueling physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital after he lost a leg.

What then followed added insult to injury, he said, when the Army refused to allow him to stay in, but also refused to allow him to rejoin his unit for their homecoming. He said it seemed that story changed almost daily while he was recuperating from his wounds.

“When I was at Walter Reed, one guy was telling me one thing and another guy was telling me something else,” Wilson said. “It was so confusing.”

He said the legislation will put in place a clear set of standards and practices for all services. Wilson said if the Army had allowed him to stay in the military, he would have done so in a ‘heartbeat’.

“I might not be able to run two miles like I used to,” Wilson said. “But I can sit behind a desk and calculate someone’s pay as well as the next guy.”

Donna Herr, who represents one of the Oregon National Guard Family Support Groups, said because Oregon lacks a full-time, active duty base, a lot of the built-in support network that comes with the active duty military is not available to Oregonians. Something as simple as daycare for a working spouse while their husband or wife is deployed becomes an extreme hardship, Herr said.

“A base environment would have helped,” she said.

Herr added that proposed changes to the Military Family Leave Act of 2009 would allow individuals up to two weeks of unpaid leave to help ease the transition of their deploying spouse.

For more information on the legislation Wyden proposes, go here.

A brief overview of the bills Wyden will introduce to Congress after it reconvenes July 5:

The Guard and Reserve "soft-landing" bill – The bill would allow returning vets to stay on active duty for up to 90 days after returning from a deployment, meaning they could continue to collect base pay, housing and other allowances as they transition back into ‘normal’ life. The idea is to build enough of a cushion for soldiers and families who take some time to readjust to civilian life, whether because of underemployment, emotional issues or financial hardship. Conversely, active-duty soldiers can re-enter life on a military base, surrounded by support systems. Guard soldiers and reservists on the other hand, find themselves in their hometowns within days of being ‘in country’.

The Wounded Warrior Retention Act – This bill would help servicemembers who want to stay in the military after suffering wounds but encounter insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles. Wyden argues that letting the services keep people who want to stay will ultimately save the country money by avoiding retraining costs.
The Military Family Leave Act – This bill will guarantee family members two weeks of employment leave to allow family members to spend time together, such as during a soldier's two weeks of mid-deployment leave. This leave would be without any penalties to the employee, and applies to part-time as well as fulltime positions.

The Servicemembers' Mental Health Commission Act – This law would establish a commission to study and help implement effective methods of treating the mental and emotional wounds of deployed servicepersons. It also strives to remove the stigma and barriers that servicemembers face while trying to seek assistance.
The Hospital Quality Report Card Initiative – This law would provide semi-annual VA hospital quality and equity reports to better inform patients and to provide information to agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Posted by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy,
Oregon Military Department Public Affairs Office

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