Politics & Government

'Sole survivor' takes fight with Army to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON -- Fresno County sheriff's deputy Jason Hubbard lost two brothers in Iraq, but he's quickly gained hundreds of allies on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, the former Army sniper stood alert while lawmakers introduced legislation designed to protect pay and benefits for "sole survivor" veterans who have been discharged early following the deaths of siblings. Hubbard learned the hard way that the Pentagon currently restricts benefits for those discharged early, even if the discharges are for the best of reasons.

"These brave men and women have served their country honorably, and they've suffered great personal tragedies," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "To deny them separation benefits only adds insult to injury."

Many lawmakers seem to agree. A bill protecting veterans benefits for sole survivors, now dubbed the Hubbard Act, had attracted about 180 House co-sponsors late Tuesday afternoon. By Wednesday morning, some 235 co-sponsors had signed on.

"I'm overwhelmed," Hubbard said. "This is a very intriguing world to be part of."

A self-described political novice, Hubbard spent part of Tuesday and Wednesday meeting with key congressional staffers responsible for moving the veterans benefit legislation written in his honor. He accompanied Feinstein, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno and a Republican senator from Georgia to a noon news conference, convened in the ornate Russell Senate Office Building.

Behind the assembled lawmakers, large photographs depicted Hubbard and his two late brothers, Nathan and Jared. Until it came time for him to talk, Hubbard stood like a man accustomed to the concept of silent attention.

Jared, a Marine, died in Iraq in November 2004. A year later, his two surviving brothers enlisted in the Army. In August, Nathan died in a helicopter crash.

Under a longstanding military policy designed to protect sole surviving family members, Jason Hubbard was removed from the combat zone hear Kirkuk in which he had been serving. He voluntarily took an honorable discharge from the Army in October 2007, having served 30 months of his three-year enlistment.

"I didn't have anything else to give," Hubbard said. "My family has given more than it was obligated to."

The Army, though, thought otherwise.

Reasoning that Hubbard had not fulfilled his original enlistment commitment, Army paymasters required him to repay $2,000 of his original $6,000 enlistment bonus. Hubbard said this money was taken out of his final paychecks. Army officials also denied his family transitional health benefits.

Citing rules and regulations, the Army further said Hubbard's earlier-than-planned discharge rendered him ineligible for $40,000 in G.I. Bill benefits available to other veterans.

Hubbard said the lost educational benefits were mostly a matter of principle. Now 34, he planned all along to return to the deputy sheriff's job he left when he enlisted in the Army. The lost health benefits, though, really hit home, as his wife, Linnea, was pregnant at the time.

Linnea has since given birth, to a boy named Elijah Jared Hubbard. She is pregnant again, with a boy whose middle name will be Nathan.

Hubbard late last year contacted Nunes, who called on Army Secretary Pete Geren, a former member of Congress. Geren, in turn, used his available discretion to provide health benefits for Linnea Hubbard and exempt Jason Hubbard from repaying the enlistment bonus.

"In the final analysis, despite overwhelming recognition of this injustice, we could not resolve all of the problems without legislation," Nunes said.

Pentagon officials have identified 51 members of the military who since Sept. 11, 2001, have been designated as sole survivors, requiring them to be removed from combat duty. Officials on Wednesday, though, could not specify how many of these have lost benefits because they left the service altogether.

The legislation introduced Wednesday covers military sole survivors discharged since Sept. 11, 2001. The bill allows veterans to keep their entire enlistment bonus and ensures continuation of other benefits including use of commissaries, veterans' home loan guarantees, education benefits and more.

Lawmakers said Wednesday they hope to move the bill quickly. The Pentagon has not offered any public objection, though officials behind the scenes have suggested it may be unnecessary.

"The Army had made it seem that somehow I had not fulfilled my obligation," Hubbard said. "I think most people think otherwise."