Editorials

Duty calls for Washington lawmakers to serve military families and veterans

He received his Purple Heart nearly 50 years after serving in the Vietnam War

Vietnam veteran Isadore Sylve received a Purple Heart during a small ceremony at his Lacey home nearly 50 years after serving – and being wounded – in the Vietnam War.
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Vietnam veteran Isadore Sylve received a Purple Heart during a small ceremony at his Lacey home nearly 50 years after serving – and being wounded – in the Vietnam War.

JBLM, Camp Murray and the rest of the South Sound’s military infrastructure bring immeasurable value to our region, far beyond the economics of being Pierce County’s No. 1 employer.

Immeasurable, but not invisible. Just look at the tens of thousands of service members, veterans and military families who bring so many good qualities to neighborhoods both inside and outside the gates of their bases south of Tacoma. Consider their resilience, bravery, professionalism, volunteer vigor and deep sense of honor to country, which set a high bar for the rest of us.

Washington elected officials have a duty to represent those who protect and fight for freedom as much as those who enjoy its spoils.

Nobody should make the mistake of typecasting local military personnel as nomads, aloof and disconnected, two years and gone. Many are plugging into the community, transitioning to permanent homes and starting new lives here.

According to the JBLM/Camp Murray Regional Survey, the percentage of service members living off base climbed from 70 percent to 87.5 percent between 2013 and 2016. Their rate of renting vs. owning homes flipped from 60 percent renting to 60 percent owning. Meantime, 59 percent of active-duty respondents planned to shift into civilian careers — nearly double the 30 percent who’d planned to shed their uniforms three years earlier.

As the 2019 legislative session winds down, let’s take a moment to highlight new laws that Pierce County leaders won this year on behalf of their active-duty, Reserve and Guard constituents and veterans.

* Advanced school enrollment for students in military families. This will eliminate a big headache for families transferring to a new base. School districts will soon be able to enroll children of service members on a conditional basis prior to their arrival in a new community. Until now, districts required proof of residency.

To hold kids out of school and let them fall behind over a piece of paper was silly, plain and simple. This bureaucratic barrier should have been torn down long ago.

House Bill 1210’s lead sponsor was Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place.

* Fair pay for National Guard members fighting wildfires.This will ensure men and women in the Guard who are called to the fire lines no longer get compensated less than state Department of Natural Resource firefighters. Until now, Guard fire pay was tied to the federal minimum wage, while state fire crews earned bigger paychecks.

In addition to keeping up traditional military skills, Guard members have distinguished themselves the last few summers by helping save homes and lives during historically bad Washington wildfire seasons. Underpaying them was an embarrassing wrong that’s now been righted.

House Bill 1137’s lead sponsor was Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place.

* Long-distance firearm license renewal for service members. If you’re a Washington soldier deployed overseas or stationed out of state, you currently have to return home to renew your concealed pistol license. That’s an unnecessary nuisance. Soon you’ll be able to do it by mail or online application.

Second Amendment defenders may be pleasantly surprised to learn this change passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature with just one “no” vote.

The lead sponsor of House Bill 1934 was Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard.

* Fee exemptions for Purple Heart and Gold Star license plates. This is a modest but meaningful gesture, waiving fees and taxes on commemorative plates issued to wounded veterans and families who lost a loved one in action.

Several South Sound lawmakers co-sponsored House Bills 1197 and 2058.

Other new laws don’t single out military members specifically but were crafted with them in mind. Senate Bill 5054, for instance, will make it easier for mental-health and addiction recovery professionals to be certified in Washington when moving from another state.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, sees it as a way for Washington’s understaffed behavioral health system to quickly employ and harness the skills of military spouses.

Of course, service-connected families also have many of the same expectations that other taxpayers do. They want safe neighborhoods, quality public schools and an unpolluted environment. They want less congested traffic, including completion of a fourth freeway lane on Interstate 5 near JBlM, removal of at-grade rail crossings and widening DuPont/ Steilacoom Road.

State leaders must never forget the more than 2.6 million veterans, active-duty, Guard and Reserve warriors and family members who live under two flags — the Stars and Stripes, and the dark-green banner of Washington.

It’s up to Pierce County to remind them.

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