Veterans struggling to find legislative success

INDIANAPOLIS — Midway through our on-air conversation about the way Indiana state government treats veterans, retired Lt. Col. Ron Martin cuts through it.

Gov. Mike Pence and the members of the Indiana General Assembly, Martin said, “love to give veterans pats on the back.” He cites a ceremony in which, in front of a crowd, the state presented four wounded veterans with beautiful canes — a lovely photo opportunity.

“But what does that really do to help veterans?” Martin asked.

He and retired Brig. Gen. James Bauerle form the legislative arm of the Military/Veterans Coalition of Indiana. Each had a long military career.

Bauerle was in uniform for 32 years, serving in Vietnam and the Gulf War, before retiring in 2000.

When he retired, he settled in Indianapolis, the city of his birth.

Martin didn’t serve quite as long, but his years in uniform also spanned decades. He, too, fought in the Gulf War. He settled in Indiana because that is where his children live.

Bauerle and Martin talk with me on this day because they are frustrated with the way state government has responded to veterans’ needs.

Bauerle said not long ago the Indiana Legislature went 16 years without considering or approving any measure related to veterans.

This year, Bauerle added, the coalition supported 50 bills before the Indiana House of Representatives and the Indiana Senate. Now, just a couple of weeks past the 2015 legislative session’s halfway mark, only 10 still are alive — and two of those are House and Senate versions of the same measure. That’s less than a 20 percent success rate.

Among the casualties has been the coalition’s top legislative priority, a proposal to provide better care for veterans who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or who have traumatic brain injuries. It would cost the state $2 million — which, Bauerle noted, the state likely could get back from the federal government.

Bauerle said there are 75,000 veterans in Indiana afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

And they need help.

I asked Bauerle why so many veterans now are wounded in this way. He said it has to do with the changing nature of war. When he served in Vietnam, he says, there could be times — or at least moments — of respite from the stresses of combat. Because of the changes in technology and tactics, the worries about potential attacks and the stress that comes with it are unrelenting.

Calls and messages start to come in.

Almost all, not surprisingly, are from veterans.

Most ask variations of the same questions:

Why aren’t we veterans being heard? Why doesn’t the state care?

The most plaintive comes from a female veteran who wants to know why veterans are treated like beggars when they come to the Statehouse asking for help for brothers and sisters in arms who bear wounds they received defending this country. She also wants to know why Pence has yet to put veterans’ issues on his list of priorities.

I asked Bauerle and Martin if that isn’t the bone of contention — that veterans just want to know that they and their service to their country matter. Both men nodded yes.

Bauerle said he believes there is support for veterans at the Statehouse. He said an overwhelming number of legislators say they will vote for veterans’ bills when they get a chance to.

That tells me that Bauerle and Martin, military men doubtless used to more straightforward communication, haven’t cracked the code of legislative speak yet. When a lawmaker says he or she will vote for something as soon as it reaches the floor, it means it has no prayer of getting to the floor. Similarly, when a lawmaker pledges to vote for something in committee as soon as the chair calls it, it means the chair won’t be calling it.

I ask if the legislators ever have told Bauerle and Martin that their reluctance to act on behalf of veterans stems from a conviction that doing so should be the federal government’s responsibility. Bauerle said no one at the Statehouse ever has said that directly — and he added that some honest communication would be a welcome change.

The hour ends. The conversation, for the moment, stops.

The wounds, though, endure.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.