New state law opens up benefits to an estimated 800 veterans
Hartford — Thomas Burke has been out of the Marine Corps for 10 years but said it wasn't until this week that he felt like a veteran.
Burke, a former infantryman who deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, received an other-than-honorable discharge for smoking marijuana months after returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, during which he had to clean up the remains of a group of Afghan children who'd been blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade that they were bringing to his military base.
"I can't explain the feelings I have today, after 10 years of service from returning home, I finally feel like a veteran because Connecticut stood up and told me that I'm a veteran," Burke said Thursday.
A new state law that went into effect Monday allows veterans discharged under "other-than-honorable" circumstances, who have post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma resulting from their military service, to access state veteran benefits.
State officials and veterans touted the new law at a news conference Thursday morning in Hartford. Several of them said that the law, the first of its kind, makes Connecticut a leader in the nation.
"We are the first state in the country to recognize the importance of full transition assistance for veterans who are in crisis with mental health conditions, and to recognize the connection between those mental health conditions and their behavior in the military," said Steve Kennedy, Connecticut team leader for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a major advocate for the state legislation.
"I don't think I exaggerate at all when I say that this bill will absolutely be saving lives here in Connecticut," he added.
The law impacts between 800 and 1,000 veterans in the state, according to an estimate by Yale University's Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
These veterans now will be eligible for state benefits such as property tax exemptions and tuition waivers for universities and community and technical colleges in the state. The new law doesn't apply to veterans with a "bad conduct" or "dishonorable" discharge.
The U.S. military discharges more than 20,000 service members annually with one of five discharge statuses ranging from honorable to dishonorable. An other-than-honorable discharge is classified as an administrative separation.
The cost to the state and municipalities is expected to be minimal. Using the property tax exemption as an example, wartime veterans in Connecticut are eligible for a basic exemption of $1,000 and an income-based exemption ranging from $500 to $2,000.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs has circulated a standardized form to every state agency and every municipality that veterans must have filled out by a clinician at one of the VA hospitals in Connecticut or a Vet Center showing they have a qualifying condition. That form, along with a veteran's military discharge form, known as a DD-214, will be attached to the application for whatever state or municipal benefit the veteran is applying for.
"The key here is educating those who are accepting those applications to understand what this all means, and that (these veterans) receive all benefits they otherwise would've received if they had an 'honorable' or 'general under honorable conditions,'" state VA Commissioner Tom Saadi said.