Indiana’s veterans, active duty and reserve service members want two big things from the General Assembly: continued tax benefits and expanded treatment options — including mental health — in their communities.
The few hundred participants in Tuesday’s Indiana Military & Veterans Legislative Day represented five branches of the armed services, primarily from the Army, but also from the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps.
The newest branch, Space Force, founded by former President Donald Trump, still has a limited presence with only a few hundred members nationwide.
“If we leave here today, our fight is not over; it’s only just begun,” said Pat O’Donnell, a Vietnam veteran who leads various veterans’ groups in Northwest Indiana. “We will fight to our last breath for these tax benefits because if we don’t, nobody will.”
Founded by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, the Veterans’ Event allows veterans and members of the military to meet with their elected officials and share priorities. Bartlett said that next year, the 10th anniversary of the event, will be sponsored by House Speaker Todd Huston and will hopefully attract more than a dozen or so MPs who were in attendance Tuesday.
Previous legislative victories inspired by the event include waiving state taxes on veterans’ pensions, Bartlett said.
“This day allows things like that to happen,” Barlett said.
Expand mental health services for veterans
Among the bills of particular interest in the upcoming session is Senate Bill 1, which expands mental health services statewide.
The bill’s author, Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, stressed the importance of 988 — the country’s new suicide hotline — which jibes with the veteran crisis hotline operated by the Department of Defense.
“The reality is that there are issues that go beyond politics,” Crider said. “We regularly work across party lines to try and pass legislation (like this).”
An estimated 343 veterans committed suicide in 2020, down from 2019, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, though some believe the true number is more than 200% of that number. The America’s Warrior Partnership estimates that between 40 and 44 veterans commit suicide every day.
According to the American Psychological Association, veterans are more than 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide, likely due to higher rates of trauma or stress, easy access to firearms, and difficulty reintegrating into civilian life.
Special bills for veterans
Legislation introduced so far this year would allow disabled veterans to file an additional rent deduction of up to $3,000, while another would grant free entry to the state park to any current or former military member.
Rep. Mitch Gore’s bill proposes establishing a “green alert” for missing, vulnerable veterans with known physical or mental health issues related to their service, and Rep. David Abbott’s bill would allow “critically injured veterans” to stay inside four free days to hunt indiana.
Rep. Randy Frye has also introduced a bill that would allow some ex-military personnel to become educators by granting a temporary license alongside another bill that would exempt military pay from state income tax.