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Lawmakers pushing bills aimed at helping military members, veterans

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PHOENIX – If a service member wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq is recuperating in another state or country, his or her family can request money from the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund to travel and stay nearby.

The same goes for a family unable to repair an air conditioner or cover a mortgage payment because a spouse or parent is deployed or was killed in action.

Administered by the state Department of Veterans’ Services and funded by private donations, the Military Family Relief Fund is a financial safety net for families of those who have served since the 9/11 attacks. A 2007 law establishing the fund provides donors a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit until the fund hits $1 million in a given year.

The fund is scheduled to retire in 2013, but supporters said it’s important to keep it around because of the continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan. A bill by Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, would extend it through 2018.

“If it’s not extended, there wouldn’t be too many organizations available out there that would be able to absorb that increased need,” said Travis Schulte, who administers the fund.

Griffin’s bill is one of many proposed this legislative session that aim to help members of the military services as well as veterans. The list includes bills that would note on driver’s licenses whether a person is a veteran, support student veterans and require government offices to fly a special flag when Arizonans are killed in action.

Dave Hampton, legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, said bills helping service members and veterans are always popular with state lawmakers.

“I would have to say the Arizona Legislature is probably the most veteran-friendly legislature in the United States,” he said.

Rep. David Gowan, R-Tucson, chairman of the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee, said it’s the least lawmakers can do for Arizona’s service members.

One of Gowan’s bills, for example, would clarify that members of the Arizona National Guard and military reservists, as well as their families, can receive grants from the Military Family Relief Fund.

“When you put a bill up that helps your heroes, how do you vote no?” he said.

Driver’s licenses

Proving eligibility for benefits can be a hassle for a veteran because he or she must provide military documentation as proof that they received an honorable discharge, according to Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa.

He authored a bill that would add distinguishing marks on veterans’ driver’s licenses or state-issued identification cards.

Part of the reason for the bill is personal, Lewis said.

When his father passed away, Lewis had to locate his father’s documentation, a DD 214, so he could receive military honors at his funeral.

“I had his driver’s license – he carried it on him all the time – but I had to search through his things before I could find his DD 214,” he said.

Lewis’ bill would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to administer marks on driver’s licenses and identification cards to prove the card holder is a veteran as long as he or she provides proof of an honorable discharge.

“It’s a good gesture to those who have served us so well that will hopefully make their lives a little bit easier, and the lives of their family members easier upon their death,” he said.

Veteran supportive campuses

Service members returning from combat zones face additional challenges when their readjustment to civilian life includes seeking a college education.

A law that took effect last year attempts to ease that transition by allowing community colleges and universities to be certified as “veteran supportive campuses.” To be certified, campuses must prove they have identified the needs of student veterans and developed programs and resources to address them.

A bill by Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, would require the state Department of Veterans’ Services to promote the opportunity for certification and post a list of certified schools online. He authored another bill to require certified schools to report graduation numbers for veterans.

According to the Arizona Veterans’ Education Foundation, 92 percent of Arizona student veterans didn’t graduate from four-year programs as of 2009.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, a member of the Senate Veterans, Military and Government Affairs Committee, said veterans returning from war zones deserve support.

“It’s difficult for a service person to come back from such an intense environment and then sit and listen to such a boring lecture,” he said.

Honor and Remember Flag

Rep. Jack W. Harper, R-Surprise, authored a bill that would require government buildings to fly at half staff a flag honoring fallen military personnel when a service member dies in action.

A national group is urging states to display the Honor and Remember Flag. Harper’s bill would require it for the State Capitol, city and town halls and county Superior Court and administrative buildings.

Augostine Martone Jr., whose son Robert was killed in Iraq, attended a Senate committee hearing to urge lawmakers to approve the bill.

“There’s no other flag in 200 years that has any meaning towards this honoring all the soldiers that have fallen,” he said in an interview.

Shooter said the state should go even further and provide the flags to families of fallen service members.

“They paid the ultimate price and I think its important for us, particularly in our capacity as officials, for us to remember these sacrifices,” he said.