Gov. signs bills to improve veteran benefits

By Mary Rickard

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn signed several bills on Aug. 14 at the Illinois State Fair, expanding the educational and health benefits for veterans across the state, including those currently enrolled at the University.

Thirty-five University students who are members of the National Guard or Reserves have been deployed or called to active duty in Iraq, said Robert Woods, veterans’ program administrator for the University. A significant number have served more than one deployment, he said.

House Bill 815, which is effective immediately, increases Illinois Veteran Grant’s education benefits. Students, who have served one year of active duty, or who have served less than a year if they served in a foreign country during wartime, would receive grants covering tuition plus all mandatory fees.

The bill also expanded education benefits to National Guard officers previously excluded from the program, said Lori Reimers, director of state relations for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. The Illinois General Assembly voted unanimously in favor of the bill, which was co-sponsored by military veterans, Sen. William Haine (D-Alton) and Rep. Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville).

“Illinois has a long history of providing one of the most generous education benefit programs for veterans in the nation,” Watson said.

However, Illinois is the last state in the nation to provide disability pay for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disabilities. Men and women who have served in combat frequently experience post-traumatic stress disorder, yet private insurers had not been required to provide treatment.

House Bill 2190 would require private insurance companies to cover the disorder for veterans diagnosed by their own psychiatrist or psychologist.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a chronic mental health problem resulting from experiencing life-threatening events, including terrorist incidents, violent personal assaults and natural disasters. During Vietnam, the condition was referred to as “shell shock.” The symptoms can include depression, nightmares, flashbacks and memory problems.

Between 27 and 33 percent of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have been diagnosed with the disorder, said Eric Schuller, senior policy advisor for Quinn. During the Vietnam War, soldiers were usually given a month’s leave in a safe zone every 35 to 50 days. Soldiers serving in Iraq get only one or two days at a time in a non-combat zone. Schuller said the soldiers are under stress 24 hours a day.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder will hit hard on the reserves,” Schuller said.

Because reserves are sent home quickly, they do not have any time to adjust to being back in the United States. Active duty personnel remain with the same comrades for two to four weeks, allowing them to wind down.

The first 90 days back in the United States are critical in prevention, Schuller said.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the leading causes of homelessness, alcoholism, domestic violence and imprisonment – all state issues,” Schuller said.

The disorder can seriously impair an individual’s ability to function in social and family life.

Approximately 87,000 veterans receive treatment for the disorder, and more than 1,600 veterans have been treated at the Danville Veterans Administration Hospital since 1996.

“Many of those on the frontlines in the Global War on Terror have suffered invisible, as well as visible, scars,” Quinn said. “It’s our duty to help those afflicted with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder upon their return home.”

David Sayers, veteran services officer for the University Veterans Services Office, said he has yet to see any cases of the disorder at the University.

“We have a tight-knit group of people who help each other out,” Sayers said. “Most are happy just to get back to school.”

Blagojevich and Quinn also signed a third bill, House Bill 3472, which would create a scratch-off lottery game to increase funds available for the new Illinois Veterans’ Assistance Fund. The proceeds would be used by the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs to make grants, fund additional services and conduct research on veterans’ issues. The lottery tickets are scheduled to go on sale Jan. 1, 2006.