SHAHEEN TESTIFIES BEFORE VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE ON CHARLIE MORGAN ACT TO EXPAND BENEFITS FOR SAME SEX MILITARY COUPLES

Shaheen also highlights her bill to address veterans disability claims backlog through veterans legal clinics

June 12, 2013

(Washington, DC) – This morning U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) appeared before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to call for action on two pieces of legislation she has introduced to address problems facing military servicemembers and returning veterans.

Shaheen first discussed the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, legislation she introduced in February that would extend benefits to same sex military couples. The bill is named after New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan who passed away earlier this year after a battle with breast cancer. Currently, Morgan’s wife and daughter are not eligible for certain survivor benefits because of the definition of “spouse” in federal code. 

This morning Shaheen also discussed the Veterans Legal Services Act, a bill she introduced in May that is designed to help reduce the current veteran’s benefits backlog.  The bill aims to increase cooperation between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and veterans legal clinics that exist at some law schools. Currently, law schools and their student volunteers are making significant progress reducing disability claims backlogs and veterans homelessness by helping veterans submit organized applications which helps the VA quickly process some of the most complicated and time consuming cases. Shaheen’s legislation will maximize the effectiveness of these law school programs and encourage their continued development.

Shaheen’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are included below:

 

Chairman Sanders, Ranking Member Burr, Members of the Committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak briefly about two pieces of legislation that are before you today. 

The first is the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, which I introduced along with Senator Gillibrand in February.  The bill would address ongoing discrimination against gay and lesbian members of the military and their families.  In particular, it would make a number of critical benefits, including TRICARE access, VA survivor benefits and travel and transportation allowances available to all military spouses, regardless of sexual orientation.

A number of important family benefits and support programs remain unavailable to same-sex spouses under current law.  Even if the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned by the Supreme Court, this bill would likely still be necessary to help ensure equality in military and veterans’ benefits for all of our nation’s military spouses.

I am certain the Committee will get into all of the various details on each of the benefits affected by this legislation, but today, I want to share with you the story of a true hero who inspired this act.  The bill before you is named after Charlie Morgan, a New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer, who sadly passed away earlier this year after a courageous battle with breast cancer. 

Charlie enlisted in the United States Army in 1982.  After a brief period away, Charlie returned to service as a member of the Kentucky National Guard in 1992.  Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Charlie returned for a third time, joining the 197th Fires Brigade of the New Hampshire National Guard, a tour that included a year-long deployment in Kuwait.

Throughout her long career of service, she shouldered the incredible burden of keeping her life secret from her fellow soldiers.  Charlie was unable to live openly under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  In addition, despite enduring the same hardships as any other military family, Charlie and her wife, Karen, were not able to take advantage of many of the same support programs that are so essential to the health and well-being of military families.

Soon after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, Charlie came out publicly and began the fight for equal benefits for same-sex spouses, benefits she and her family had earned as much as any other military member.  

But, this was not just an abstract issue for Charlie.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, and knew that her time was limited.  Concerned for the future well-being of her family, Charlie took aim at the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by joining the challenge to its constitutionality in federal court. 

Unfortunately, Charlie will not be able to see her final day in court.  She passed away earlier this year.  Charlie Morgan epitomized courage – in her military service, her fight for LGBT equality and in her battle with cancer.

I introduced this bill to honor Charlie’s memory.  Every individual who provides for our defense deserves the peace of mind that comes with knowing one’s family will be taken care of should the worst happen.

LGBT service members now serve openly in our military and we depend on them to keep us safe.  Denying their legally recognized spouses equal benefits under the law is unjustified.  No one should ever again go through what Charlie and her family had to go through.  I hope my colleagues on this committee will act quickly to address this issue by passing the Charlie Morgan Act and sending it to the floor for consideration.

The second piece of legislation I’d like to discuss is the Veterans Legal Services Act, which I recently introduced along with Senators Klobuchar and Murphy. 

No one knows better than the members of this committee the frustration that we all share regarding the VA’s disability claims backlog.  It is a national disgrace and one that we are all working to address.  I know the Chairman has sponsored legislation on this issue and I am grateful to him for that leadership. 

Our bill would support one of the most productive efforts I have seen in recent years to address both the backlog as well as veterans homelessness: the work of our nation’s law schools and their student volunteers.

Since 2008, more than 30 law schools in 18 states have developed clinical programs specifically to assist veterans.  By counseling veterans with their disability claims, law students are turning incredibly complex stories and injuries into organized benefits applications that are exponentially reducing VA’s processing time for the most complicated cases in the backlog.  

A perfect example of these programs is the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at William and Mary Law School.  On average, students in the program provide over 70 hours of assistance per veteran, and over 330 hours of assistance per veterans for cases involving Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  The results of their work have been outstanding.  In one case, students helped a veteran recoup over $40,000 dollars in back payments.

Many other states are developing equally successful programs including North Carolina, West Virginia, Connecticut, Georgia, and Ohio.

Our legislation is simple. It authorizes VA to coordinate more closely with these programs to ensure they are as productive as possible. We are hopeful that with VA’s support and guidance these programs will continue to thrive and make it easier for additional schools to follow their lead. Our goal is to eventually have a veteran’s legal clinic in every state.

Again, I want to thank the Committee again for the opportunity to appear here today, for consideration of these two pieces of legislation, and for your continued service on behalf of our nation and its veterans. 

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