It makes sense that Election Day and Veterans Day have such close proximity to one another, given that one of our most fundamental American rights — the right to vote and elect our leaders — has been secured for us by the courageous service of our veterans. As we commemorate Veterans Day this week, let’s remember this connection between our democracy and those charged with safeguarding it, today and in years past.
There are about 380,000 veterans living in Massachusetts today, and more than 50,000 of these veterans have a service-connected disability. Since September 11, 2001, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents have returned home from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 140 servicemembers from Massachusetts have made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for our country.
George Washington is credited with saying, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”
Massachusetts has long been a leader in supporting our veterans, and I’m pleased that earlier this year the state legislature passed An Act Relative to Housing, Operations, Military Service, and Enrichment, also known as the HOME Act. This important legislation updated and expanded a variety of services and programs that support our veterans and their families in the Commonwealth.
One key provision of the HOME Act is the expansion of the Public Service Scholarship to children of any military or service person missing in action (MIA), as well as children of prisoners of war (POW). Prior to the passage of this legislation, these scholarships were only available to children of MIA/POW service members who served through the Vietnam War. This provision was based on a bill that Representative Paul Brodeur and I filed as a result of the advocacy work of the Melrose Veterans Advisory Board.
I was also proud to champion a successful amendment along with Representative Brad Jones to allow certain surviving family members of soldiers killed in action to obtain a Gold Star Family license plate from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV). Previously, the Registrar could issue a Gold Star Family plate, free of charge, only to spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren of service members who died while on active duty. The law did not apply to other extended family members and next of kin related to the soldier. Our amendment now allows those individuals who possess a U.S. Department of Defense-issued Gold Star Lapel Button and letter of approval to also be eligible to obtain a Gold Star Family license plate.
This successful amendment to the HOME Act was inspired by a family from our district. Sgt. Christopher Young Vars was a World War II and Korean War veteran from Reading who was officially declared as missing in action on November 29, 1950. Although he was initially thought to have been killed in battle, Sgt. Vars was actually captured and held as a prisoner of war in North Korea, where he died several months later. His nephew, Arthur Vars, is his only next of kin and sought to honor the memory of his uncle while raising awareness of the sacrifices made by our troops.
There are many ways we can all honor the sacrifices made by our troops and veterans and show our gratitude, especially with the holiday season approaching. Hire a veteran in your business. Send a care package to soldiers serving overseas. Volunteer at a VA soup kitchen. Get involved with Helping Our Troops (www.HelpingOurTroopsMA.org), a local group founded by two Stoneham veterans, Frank Geary and Walter Kopek. And, participate in the Veterans Day events that will be taking place in our communities on November 11th.