Last month, LV Congressman Charlie Dent presented fifty WWII Merchant Mariners with long-overdue honors for their service. In the meantime, the Senate drags their feet on legislation that would provide some compensation and finally recognize these sailors, who were never even classified as veterans until 1988. Both Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey have, to their credit, agreed to co-sponsor this legislation. Here's how Lisa Wilken, a veterans' rights advocate with Operation Firing For Effect, explains it.
"I am a Veteran and volunteer working to help WWII Merchant Mariners on Senate Bill 663. Here is a little information about this bill.
"This bill has been around for 10 years now and has passed the House 3 times, but the Senate never lets it come to the floor for a vote.
"This bill will give our WWII Merchant Mariners the recognition they deserve for their service during WWII and offer them a 1000.00 a month payment from the Department of Veterans Affairs for five years. This payment is not transferable to a surviving spouse. The benefit dies with the Veteran.
"This bill came about because Mariners were not considered Veterans at the end of WWII and were not eligible for benefits. These Mariners were not able to take advantage of the GI Bill, VA Home loans, unemployment assistance, post war job preference, and medical care for their disabilities. In 1988 these Merchant Mariners were finally granted their Veteran status but it was too late for these 'new' Veterans to take advantage of many of the benefits that they earned.
"Most people don't realize that the Merchant Marines had the highest casualty rate of all the services in WWII. The Mariners were under attack before the U.S. entered the war and over 50 ships were sunk after V-E and V-J days. Most people think that these men were compensated at a higher rate than their Navy counterparts, but that is not true. This bill will not elevate these Veterans to any higher status than any other Veteran group. This bill is capped at 485 million for the 5 years. That number is based on the CBO's estimate that there are about 15,000 Mariners still living. The US Merchant Marine Organization puts that number between 9-10,000, not the 15,000 that the CBO used. Also, that number is if every Mariner alive when the bill is signed lives for the next 5 years. We are losing them at an alarming rate as their average age is around 84. The WWII Merchant Marines were the ONLY integrated service of WWII.
"Veteran’s benefits were promised to these men, but Congress never acted. As he signed the GI Bill in June 1944, President Roosevelt said, 'I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to the members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.'
"This bill can be paid for by using the money that the VA already pays out via disability compensation and pensions to other WWII Veterans who pass away. These Mariners will replace them in their pay slots. The disability compensation and pensions that are currently being paid is much more than the 1000.00 a month being offered to the Mariners; therefore, this will have no impact on the VA's budget.
"In 2007, this bill had 61 cosponsors in the Senate, but died in committee because leadership on the committee from both sides of the aisle failed to support it. I don't know why that is, especially when you look at the WWII Filipino Veteran Equity Act that passed last year as part of the stimulus package. Why is it that Congress affords these Filipino Veterans more consideration than our American WWII Merchant Mariners?"