CHICAGO- Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today asked Illinoisans to remember and appreciate the service veterans have given to our nation and to the state, and underscored his administration’s commitment to make sure veterans get their fair share of the federal benefits they’re entitled to, as he joined dozens of Hispanic former servicemen and servicewomen on Veterans’ Day in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood.
“Our veterans fought for liberty and democracy in foreign lands, against formidable foes. I invite every Illinoisan to take a few moments and think about our brave servicemen and servicewomen, and what our lives would be like had they not served during times of war and peace,” said the Governor. “Latinos serving in the Armed Forces have gone above and beyond the call of duty to preserve our freedoms and pursue the American Dream. This dedication continues to this day in places like Iraq, where 12 percent of our troops are comprised of Latinos. We can never quite repay our veterans for their sacrifice, but we must recognize and honor their contributions, and make sure they get what they have earned. That’s why my administration is committed to help make sure Illinois veterans are no longer shortchanged when it comes to collecting their federal benefits.”
The Governor spoke at a Little Village square commemorating Manuel Perez, Jr., who was a Private First Class with the U.S. Army’s Company A, 511th Parachute Infantry, 11th Airborne Division fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Perez was the lead scout for Company A, which had destroyed 11 of 12 Japanese pillboxes in a strongly fortified sector defending the approach to enemy-held Fort McKinley on Luzon, Philippine Islands. Single-handedly, Perez killed 18 Japanese soldiers in neutralizing the position that had held up the advance of his entire company. Perez, who was killed in action on February 13, 1945 at the age of 21, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, one of 42 Hispanics awarded our nation’s highest battle decoration.
At the ceremony, organized by the American GI Forum of Illinois, the Mexican American Veteran Association and the American Legion Manuel Perez, Jr. Post #1017, the Governor was joined by U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and by Roy L. Dolgos, Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
According to U.S. Census figures, over 1.1 million Hispanics are veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Over 130,000 servicemen and servicewomen of Hispanic descent were on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces as of September 2004 according to Department of Defense figures.
In Illinois, nearly one million residents are veterans. In order to better help our state veterans collect the federal benefits they have earned, the Governor this week announced the 25 additional Veteran Service Officers (VSO) he promised in his State of the State address last February will be deployed across the state by the end of the year.
IDVA received $1.5 million in additional funding to increase the number of VSO’s by 50 percent in an effort to improve outreach to the state’s veterans and help them process their benefits claims and apply for other federal and state services. According to news reports, nearly $400 million in federal money entitled to the state’s veterans goes unclaimed each year.
Since 2003, Governor Blagojevich has focused state efforts on assisting Illinois veterans and those soldiers who are currently on active duty. Through executive or legislative action the Governor has:
· Conferred with the United States Secretary of the Army to suggest specific improvement to the Casualty Assistance program, so that those who lose their lives in battle – and their families – are treated with all the respect they deserve.
· Created the Abraham Lincoln Medal of Freedom, to honor and recognize the service of members of the Illinois Army and National Guard who are mobilized in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
· Helped thousands of veterans get federal and state benefits at the July 9 Supermarket of Veterans’ Benefits in Chicago, the largest veterans’ fair in the state’s history.
· Set up a not-for-profit organization known as the Illinois Veterans Foundation that will partner with corporations, other foundations and private citizens to assist the state in reaching out to and helping our veterans.
· Started a pilot program at the Manteno Veterans’ Home to serve as supportive and transitional homes for vets.
· Created an Illinois Income Tax Check-Off program to generate more revenue for veterans’ homes.
· Signed legislation that requires insurance companies in Illinois to cover Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition hurting thousands of veterans in the state.
· Signed legislation to enact the Family Military Leave Act, which provides the spouse and parents of a solider, who has been called to more than one month of active duty with 15 to 30 days of leave time.
· Signed legislation allowing the Illinois Department of Revenue to create a scratch-off lottery game that will help fund grants and programs to better serve the state’s one million veterans.
· Signed legislation to help soldiers on active duty and veterans get or complete a college education.
· Signed legislation allowing for peacetime veterans to be admitted at the state’s Veterans’ Homes.
· Signed legislation that will increase penalties for individuals who fraudulently try to obtain state benefits reserved for veterans.
· Signed legislation to extend municipal hiring preferences to all veterans who served at least one year of active military duty.
· Signed legislation to provide financial assistance to small businesses that lose employees who are called to active duty during military conflict.
· Signed legislation to give the state accurate information on how Illinois veterans are doing in terms of collecting federal benefits in comparison to veterans from other states.
· Signed legislation to give veterans returning from active duty preference in keeping the jobs they had been offered before being deployed.
· Signed legislation to increase property tax exemptions for disabled veterans and their spouses.
· Signed legislation to give national guardsmen and reservist a 180-day extension to file their property taxes.
· Signed legislation to eliminate the initial fees for the Gold Star plates, issued to parents who have lost a child in active service.
· Signed legislation to waive camping, hunting and fishing fees for Illinois residents who are members of the Armed Forces and are returning from active duty.
· Signed legislation to increase the monetary death benefit given by the IDVA to families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, making Illinois the first state in the nation to offer soldiers additional monetary benefits than those provided by the federal government.
· Signed legislation to help Illinois soldiers and their families maintain health coverage and childcare assistance when they are deployed to fight the War on Terror.