OPINION: Lack of combat duty doesn’t diminish service
I want to thank Rep. Dan Saddler for his loyalty and respect for our military veterans and service to his district and the Legislature.
Rep. Saddler equates veteran status with combat veterans (Star. March 1). Let me be clear, combat veterans are a very special class of veterans and deserve our utmost respect and support. That includes ensuring they have access to an excellent Veterans’ Affairs system, support from the state, and community engagement through veterans organization and veterans support groups.
However, according to a 2012 study, only 60 percent of the total Department of Defense active duty military members deploy to combat zones, with 11 percent deploying more than three times during their service. The other 40 percent serve the needs of the service without combat duty.
This does not make them less of a veteran; it just does not make them a combat veteran. And that is the point with the U.S. Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officers.
The question of veteran status in Alaska needs further clarification to align with the federal definition of veteran. U.S. Code defines veteran based on active duty military service with pay and grades commensurate amongst all seven services and upon completion of service eligibility for veteran benefits, thus the status of veterans.
Each of us serve our nation through our service and commitment to deploy to the needs of the service, to accept the separation from our families as required, and to locate ourselves and our families to the duty stations designated by the service.
To better understand this, a look into each service’s history in Alaska is merited. NOAA Officers, and their predecessors of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, have served in Alaska for the last 100 years following their commissioning in 1917.
They have worked to develop the maritime navigation corridors of Alaska, supported the Navy and Army in preparation for and during World War II and the 1,000-mile war in the Aleutians, the naval resupply of the arctic DEW Line sites, and responded to disasters including the 1964 earthquake and the Exxon Valdez.
At the peak, they commanded eight ships working in Alaska waters with 56 officers deployed at sea. Today, NOAA Officers staff three ships working in Alaska, with the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson and the NOAA ship Fairweather specifically homeported in Kodiak and Ketchikan.
Similarly, USPHS Commissioned Officers have been involved with health and disease control in Alaska since the late 1920s. Since the early 1960s, USPHS Officers have provided the medical and environmental engineering expertise to the Indian Health Service, bringing medical expertise to Alaska natives in rural and urban communities.
In addition, they have provided medical support to the U.S. Coast Guard at its stations of Kodiak, Ketchikan and Juneau. These efforts, in addition to specialized support to Alaska’s military and work with the state for disease control, has maintained 400 billets in Alaska ranging from Metlakatla to Kotzebue, with concentrations in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and the Palmer Wasilla area.
In addition, according to the USPHS Commissioned Officers Association, almost 1,100 officers have deployed to the Gulf and Afghanistan Wars in support of the armed forces.
To put a context to this bill, House Bill 194 was originally introduced as Senate Bill 184 in the previous Legislature by Sen. Lesil McGuire. She introduced the bill in honor of her father, Dr. David McGuire who served as a USPHS Officer, prior to his distinguished medical career in Alaska.
The bill was not heard, but her desires to have him and his service recognized as a veteran should be respected. As with a change in definition in one statute, it sets up a rationale to change the other statutes that utilize the definition.
Thus, the specific changes identified by Rep. Saddler is not to specifically increase the benefits for the uniformed services, but to make the statutes consistent with the definition of veteran throughout the 28 sections identified in HB 194. It is with appreciation that Rep. Matt Claman re-introduced this bill and is willing to hear the dialogue.
After you consider this comment, please express your view to Reps. Claman and Saddler, as well as the members of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. The bill can be amended to respect everyone’s opinions on what benefits are deserved.
But it should be recognized for the recognition of the pride of service that the commissioned officers of the U.S. Public Health Service and NOAA are no different than the pride of service of our armed service members.
Finally, regardless of the future of HB 194, please work with Veterans’ Affairs and register to receive the newly available VA Identification Card, a card available to veterans who do not have VA medical benefits. Your registration will help to address the disparity between the number of veterans accounted by the PFD application and the number of veterans registered with the VA. Your efforts will ensure that Alaska’s VA can provide the best service for Alaska’s veterans.
Captain Bob Pawlowski, NOAA (Ret) resides in Anchorage, is a lifetime member of the MOAA which represents the seven uniformed services, and has contributed to Alaska during his military career and post-military activities.