WASHINGTON — Madera County resident Nick Ramey was a sole survivor the minute he joined the Marines.
His stepbrother Branden had already died in Iraq. Ramey battled through his own combat tour. Now, he awaits President Bush's signature on a bill that offers benefits and, some feel, simple justice for fellow sole survivors.
"I felt I needed to leave (the military) to be with my family," Ramey said Tuesday. "Now, I have this really bitter taste in my mouth. It's wrong what they did to us. It's wrong."
Bush will sign the so-called Hubbard Act as early as this week. Named for Fresno County Deputy Sheriff Jason Hubbard and his brothers, the bill approved by the Senate on Friday protects the pay and benefits of sole survivors.
The sole survivor term is a little bit of a misnomer. Sole survivor veterans are those who accept an early discharge after they lose a parent or sibling also serving in the military, even if other siblings remain alive. The honorable discharges are a long-standing humanitarian option, but until now they have exacted a steep price.
The Army, for instance, required Hubbard to repay one-third of his enlistment bonus when he took an early discharge following the deaths of his brothers Jared and Nathan. Hubbard and Ramey were also denied standard health and education benefits.
"Losing a family member to a bomb blast is hard enough," said Ramey's mother, Sandy. "We didn't need the additional stress of no benefits, income or medical coverage, especially after Nick definitely fought for his country."
Provoked by the Hubbard family's travails, Congress passed the legislation now heading to the White House. The bill chiefly authored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein guarantees sole survivors potential benefits including unemployment compensation, hiring preference for federal jobs, home loans and school grants. Enlistment bonuses can be retained.
"I think that's wonderful for (sole survivors), relieving them of a lot of undue stress," Sandy Ramey said.
Her son is apparently one of about 50 sole survivors honorably discharged since Sept. 11, 2001, the symbolically weighted date Congress set as the new policy's starting point. The Pentagon estimates an additional 20 sole survivors will be discharged annually over the next five years, costing the Pentagon about $1 million.
Ramey's circumstances differ from Hubbard's, but appear to meet the Hubbard Act's criteria.
Now 21, Nick Ramey attended Madera County's Liberty and Independence high schools. In November 2004, his 22-year-old stepbrother Branden, a Marine lance corporal, died near the Iraqi city of Fallujah. A month later, Nick enlisted.
"These boys join up with big ideas of saving the world, with no idea of the fear in Mom and Dad's hearts," Sandy Ramey said.
Nick Ramey served with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq's Al Anbar province between March 2006 and September 2007. One of his ears still rings from a roadside blast that occurred on his 20th birthday. Iraq remains with him.
"I get really, really, really angry," Ramey said. "I'll lose my temper really fast."
He was preparing for another tour last year until his parents became convinced, Sandy Ramey said, "that he wouldn't make it home this time." Fearful, Nick's parents contacted Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Through Radanovich's intercession, a Marine Corps officer advised Nick Ramey of his options. Ultimately, he took an early discharge.
Married, with a young child, Ramey was unemployed for two-and-a-half months. He had no outside income or other benefits. Worst of all, Ramey said no one advised him he would forfeit benefits if he took the early discharge option. It felt like a betrayal.
Ramey now hopes to take criminal justice classes, leading to a law enforcement career. The new Hubbard Act could help him out with that ambition. Other issues may be beyond congressional reach, and are in the hands of time.
"There's a part of me," Ramey said, "that still misses the military."