By: Whitney Downard
Indiana’s veterans, active duty and reserve service members want two big things from the General Assembly: continued tax benefits and expanded treatment options — including mental health — in their communities.
The few hundred attendees of the Indiana Military & Veterans Legislative Day on Tuesday represented five of the armed forces branches, mostly from the Army, but also from the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine Corps.
The newest branch, the Space Force created by former President Donald Trump, still has a limited presence with just a few hundreds members nationwide.
“When we leave here today, our battle is not done; it has just begun,” said Pat O’Donnell, a Vietnam veteran who leads various northwest Indiana veterans groups. “We will continue to fight for these tax benefits until our dying breath because if we don’t do it nobody will.”
The veterans event, founded by Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, allows for veterans and members of the military to meet with their elected representatives and share their priorities. Bartlett said that next year, the event’s 10th anniversary, will be sponsored by House Speaker Todd Huston and hopefully draw more than the dozen or so legislators who attended Tuesday.
Previous legislative victories inspired by the event include waiving state taxes on veteran pensions, Bartlett said.
“This day makes those kinds of things happen,” Barlett said.
Expanding mental health services for veterans
Bills of particular interest in the forthcoming session include Senate Bill 1, which expands mental health services across the state.
Bill author Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, highlighted the importance of 988 — the nation’s new suicide hotline — which dovetails with the veteran crisis line operated by the Department of Defense.
“The reality is there are issues that transcend politics,” Crider said. “We work across party lines on a regular basis to try to pass legislation (like this).”
In 2020, an estimated 343 veterans committed suicide, a decrease from 2019, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, though some believe the true count is more than 200% that number. The America’s Warrior Partnership estimates that between 40-44 veterans commit suicide each day.
Veterans are more than 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide, according to the American Psychological Association, likely due to higher rates of trauma or stress, easy access to firearms and difficulty reintegrating into civilian life.
Specific bills for veterans
Legislation introduced so far this year would allow disabled veteran renters to file an additional renter’s deduction up to $3,000 while another would grant free state park admission to any current or former member of the military.
Rep. Mitch Gore’s bill proposes establishing a “green alert” for missing, at-risk veterans with known physical or mental health conditions related to their service and Rep. David Abbott’s bill would allow “critically injured veterans” four days to hunt for free within Indiana.
Rep. Randy Frye has also introduced a bill that would allow some former military members to become educators by granting a temporary license alongside another bill that would exempt military pay from the state income tax.