SEBRING — Should veterans with something less than honorable discharges be eligible for a $75-a-month tax break for serving in a combat zone?
Currently, Highlands County offers a $75 homestead exemption for each month served in a war zone, if they apply within 60 days. But there’s a Catch 22, said Veterans Service Officer Denise Williams: veterans don’t know about the grant until receiving a welcome-home letter from the county, and that letter isn’t sent until the county receives a DD Form 214 from the Defense Department.
“Last month, we had two DD Forms 214 that did not come to us for a year,” said Williams, who spoke Tuesday at the county commission meeting. “They’re not even aware that they can do this.”
She proposed that the 60-day window be widened 180 days. No one disagreed, but her second proposal drew controversy: she wanted to include veterans with general discharges under honorable conditions.
Dishonorable discharges usually come after a court-marshal. A general discharge comes when the service member has made mistakes.
“We have veterans that are doing multiple deployments, and because of self administering (drugs and alcohol), doing things that may not be acceptable to the general public, and then turning themselves into the military and saying, “I have a little bit of a problem,” instead of giving them a dishonorable discharge, they are giving them a general under honorable conditions.”
A veteran with a general discharge is eligible for Veterans Affairs and health care benefits, Williams said. “So I’m just saying that we stand up and we honor the veterans who had multiple deployments but also, in the same sense, had a little mishap because they couldn’t handle their post traumatic stress disorder.”
The county has $8,000 in each annual budget, Commissioner Don Elwell pointed out, and one veteran on 12-month combat zone deployment can be granted $900. “If we have enough people from Highlands County to apply, then why would we open up the pool to those with less-than-honorable discharges?”
“We have more than enough (money),” she said. Of the 350 Florida National Guardsmen’s 3rd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery Regiment deployed last year, 35 were from Highlands County, and 10 are already outside the 60-day application window, unless the commissioners adopt the 180-day ordinance and make it retroactive to Feb. 1. Only one has a general discharge, she said.
“I have been in trenches,” said Williams, who was twice deployed to Gulf war zones. “I see this every day. We served this country, no matter what. We didn’t know if we were coming back.”
Representatives from the VFW and the American Legion agreed with Williams, as did John Nelson, president of the local tea party and a veteran: “I want to stop the idea of separating the honorable and general under honorable conditions. This is only for guys who have been in combat. I don’t want to see these guys separated out. We’ve been under fire.”
Rick Ingler, president of the Veterans Council of Highlands County, which is made up of 24 veterans-related organizations, emailed and heard from six who wanted to deny the change to allow a general discharge to qualify for the county combat grant.
“If the Combat Award is to recognize and reward a Highlands County resident who gave of themselves to protect our freedom through sacrifice by serving honorably in Iraq and Afghanistan, then we must stay true to that original proposal made in November 2007 by then VSO Joseph Dionne,” Ingler said. “To reduce the requirement sullies the award made to those who performed honorably, as their discharge recognizes. The general discharge is a voluntary agreement between the soldier receiving it and his commanding officer, and is made freely, knowing the ramifications of such an act, and carries with it the knowledge that the benefits received in the future may reflect this. As an honorably discharged veteran of the Vietnam War who did his duty and who fulfilled his commitment to our country and the oath I took upon my entry into the military, I humbly ask that you deny this change to the requirements for the reasons stated above.”
“As the original author of the Combat Grant Program, it was with considerable thought that the term honorable discharge was inserted,” Ingler also read Dionne’s remarks. “It follows the federal government policies of granting benefits to those who have served and have met the policies, rules and regulations of proper military behavior, without violating any aspects of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“A general discharge means the military person did something so wrong, so outside the good of military service, so outside the proper rules and regulations, such as conviction of drug or alcohol abuse, or sexual misconduct or something else so wrong, that a discharge under other than honorable conditions would probably be issued, showing military service not in accordance with proper military behavior. It shows a person who can not follow orders. Why should that person be rewarded with money, free money from the taxpayers?” Dionne asked.
“I am not a combat veteran. I’m not a veteran period,” Commissioner Jim Brooks said, his voice trembling. “My son served four years in the Marine Corps. He could just as easily have come home to Camp Pendelton and gone and gotten drunk and gone to a party somewhere and took marijuana. That could have caused him to receive a less than honorable discharge. I spent a lot of time with him in California.”
Brooks said many of the Marines he met were from 18 to 22 years old. “They did a lot drinking; they did a lot of partying, I don’t have a problem with that if they served their time in combat duty. He’s still suffering from PTSD. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Richie said he wouldn’t vote for the measure, but changed his mind. The commissioners voted 4-0 for both the 180-day amendment and allowing general discharges under honorable conditions. Ron Handley was absent.