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American Legion chief touts initiatives

The national commander of the American Legion addressed a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly on Tuesday and urged lawmakers to support legislation that improves quality of life for active duty troops and veterans.

“Every state should do everything it can to take care of its veterans and its service members,” said Legion commander Dan Dellinger of Virginia.

South Carolina, while often billing itself as one of the most military friendly states in the nation, has embraced only half of the 10 legislative initiatives that the U.S. Department of Defense uses to measure quality of life for active duty service members, veterans and retirees. And a bill that provides voluntary guidelines for counties to form special courts that understand such issues as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury is stalled in the Senate.

After passing the House 114-0 and receiving a favorable report from the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012, the bill has been stuck because of the objection of a single state senator, Greg Hembree, R-Horry.

Hembree, a former Horry and Georgetown County solicitor, said he thought the bill was redundant because counties can already form veterans’ treatment courts. For example, Richland and Charleston counties already have the courts.

“You don’t need a state law,” he said. “You don’t need legislation to enable counties to create a veterans court. It doesn’t really accomplish anything.

“Why are we passing laws we don’t really need?” he added. “We pass a lot of laws that are just political statements and not real policy.”

But not passing the law could have deep financial consequences for South Carolina’s military industry, which pumps $15.7 billion into the state’s economy each year.

The military is facing deep cuts after winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is likely that Congress will call for another round of base closings as soon as 2017.

When deciding where to trim installations or consolidate missions, lawmakers and military leaders will take into consideration a state’s contribution to supporting active duty service members and veterans.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, the bill’s sponsor in the House, said the bill is voluntary for counties and has no financial strings attached.

“It is merely a guideline for those circuits that have a large veteran population and would like to pursue it,” said Smith, a major in the S.C. Army National Guard who has led troops in ground combat in Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense checklist can be found at usa4militaryfamilies.dod.mil

Virginia leads nearby states in adopting the laws. That state has made significant progress on seven of the 10 laws. Florida has passed or is near passage on six. South Carolina is tied with North Carolina and Georgia with five each.

Smith said keeping up with other states with a large military presence “is fundamental to our future success in maintaining the military investment in South Carolina and maintaining South Carolina strategically as a military friendly state that understands and support veterans.”

Dellinger told The State after his speech that his 2.4 million members nationally, which include more than 200 American Legion posts in South Carolina, support the legislation.

“It’s important that we continue to take care of our veterans,” he said. “The veterans’ court is one way to do that.”

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