Politics & Government

Cardoza bill would help veterans get information on benefits

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers are lavishing more attention on veterans like Stockton resident Cary Martin.

Some notice is strictly symbolic, like several veterans-related resolutions passed by the House on Tuesday. Some attention is a bit more tangible, like a bill authored by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, that gives veterans information about available benefits. A House subcommittee is set to approve Cardoza's non-controversial bill Thursday.

"A lot of veterans just don't know about the benefits," Martin said in a telephone interview. "And another thing is, they don't know how to navigate the system."

A 76-year-old Air Force veteran who served during the Korean War, Martin now chairs the Veterans Advisory Committee for Cardoza's 18th Congressional District. Martin and other local advisers like Atwater resident Ed Mentz Sr., a former Air Force technical sergeant, helped inspire the new bill.

The legislation would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare a CD-ROM containing benefit information, which the veteran could then read from a computer. The Defense Department would be required to distribute the compact discs to members of the armed services upon their discharge.

The bill also would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure its Web site "clearly explains" available benefits and how to obtain them.

"Time and time again I have heard about the difficulty of navigating the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy," Cardoza told the House Armed Services Committee last week, "and ... I have also heard too many times that veterans are also unaware of the benefits they are eligible for."

The department's current Web site maintains a prominently placed page that clearly itemizes and details information about various benefits such as education, life insurance and pensions. The department's current site received 14.3 million visits last year, and has received 7.6 million visits so far this year, department spokesman Terry Jamison said Tuesday.

Cardoza, though, said the CD-ROM could prove particularly useful in his rural congressional district, which stretches from San Joaquin to Fresno counties, where Internet availability may be spotty. An estimated 37,000 veterans live in the congressional district, according to the Census Bureau.

"There are, on paper, lots of services available, but there are problems when it comes to getting access," Martin said.

Cardoza's is one of nine veterans-related bills that will be marked up Thursday by a panel of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. They are a grab bag of mostly modest efforts. One, for instance, authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist a competitive Paralympic program for disabled athletes. Another enables members of the armed services to cancel cell phone contracts after they have been redeployed.

In a similar vein, the House on Tuesday set for routine approval eight non-controversial measures that ranged from praising the Year of the American Veteran to expressing congressional thanks to the American GI Forum.

A heftier debate has involved an Iraq war spending package into which congressional Democrats folded a $62.8 billion expansion of the famed GI Bill. The revised measure set for final Senate approval this week, for instance, will provide veterans the money to attend the most expensive public universities.

Some fiscally conservative House Democrats had wanted this additional veterans spending to be paid for taxing the wealthy, but this proposal could not fly politically.