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San Diego Vets Part Of Campaign That Asks Public To Go ‘Beyond The Thank You’

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San Diego veterans discussed their struggles transitioning from military to civilian life as part of a national awareness effort launched just ahead of Veterans Day.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Not everyone in uniform will be considered a veteran someday, including potentially some national guard troops who served along the border. KPBS military reporter Steve Walsh looks at how Congress is fixing and trying to fix some of those disparities.

Speaker 2: 00:16 In April, 2018 president Trump ordered 2000 national guard troops to the us Mexico border to aide Homeland security. During a tour in October, 2018 border patrol spokesman William Rogers complimented the California national guard. We're working inside a border patrol station in San Diego acting as dispatchers and monitoring cameras.

Speaker 3: 00:38 What's most important about it to us is the fact that prior to the national guard soldiers filling these spots, we had to have sworn agents filling these spots

Speaker 2: 00:49 despite the kind words. Some of these guard troops working along the border in uniform may never meet the federal definition of a veteran. One of the things guard troops need to qualify for VA benefits like healthcare or the GI bill is to serve 180 days continuously on active duty. That means being requested by the federal government under specific circumstances. It says Daniel Elkins, a special forces operator with a guard unit in LA. I reached him via Skype from the place in Utah where he's training to deploy overseas.

Speaker 4: 01:20 This affects many members of the national guard. For example, currently there's a federally declared border crisis that's going on right.

Speaker 2: 01:29 Even though the president asked for the guard and the federal government paid for the operation, their orders don't count toward being considered a veteran. Under federal law. Elkins also works with the enlisted association of national guard United States, which is lobbying to bring greater parody between active duty and the garden reserve troops like making it easier for them to qualify to become veterans by letting them add up all the times they spend on federal orders instead of just serving 180 consecutive days,

Speaker 4: 01:56 those should be added up and when you meet that threshold, you should be considered a veteran and rate the same level of benefits and services and active duty counterpart.

Speaker 2: 02:05 Most of the time, guard troops are under the control of the governor who can call them up to help with natural disasters like the wildfires in California. But there are a variety of missions. States like California also worked with the U S drug enforcement administration on counter-drug operations. Guard troops working in those missions can earn enough credit to be considered a veteran. Congressman Mike Levin, whose district covers parts of San Diego County chair's a veteran subcommittee, which recently held hearings on these parody issues.

Speaker 5: 02:33 We haven't followed a very basic principle, which is if you are expected to be doing the same sort of thing, putting your life on the line for whatever particular mission, uh, I believe you ought to be able to get the same pay and benefits.

Speaker 2: 02:45 11 says, Congress has been slow to respond to the changing role of the guard, which has been used more consistently since September 11 2001

Speaker 5: 02:53 the expectations and the demands place on our national guard and reserves that perhaps weren't there previously. We have to make sure that federal

Speaker 2: 03:00 policy reflects that cost is a factor. More troops would qualify for federal benefits. Congress changed the law, so anyone who retires from the guard reserves after 20 years is officially a veteran. The law didn't allow them to qualify for federal benefits. Elkins, the guard, special forces operator preparing for deployment, says he's talked with former guard troops who applied for benefits under the GI bill after reporting to disasters like hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast or hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Speaker 4: 03:29 And these members, uh, they serve, they deployed, they're being pulled, that they're being deployed. Um, and they assume that they have the same level of benefits,

Speaker 2: 03:41 but they don't. He says that impacts retention in the guard, but the consequences can run much deeper. Those federal benefits include longterm mental health care at the VA. The VA estimates how many veterans die per day from suicide. That grim statistic doesn't include the 919 suicides in 2017 among guard and reserve members who never achieved veterans status. The VA says that adds another 2.5 people a day to those who kill themselves. All former military but not considered veterans. Steve Walsh KPBS news.

Speaker 1: 04:18 This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.

Speaker 6: 04:32 [inaudible].

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.