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Denali National Park in Alaska.

Denali National Park in Alaska. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a bill Monday to grant all veterans with service-connected disabilities free lifetime entry to America’s 419 national park sites.

The Wounded Veterans Recreation Act, which now goes to the House for consideration, amends the current eligibility standards for national park passes. The bill would grant the passes to millions more U.S. veterans.

Now, veterans must have a 100% permanent disability to receive free lifetime entry. If approved by the House, the bill would grant a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass to any veteran with a disability rating through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.7 million veterans, or 25% of the total veterans in the U.S., had a service-connected disability in 2019. About 2.09 million had a disability rating of 60% or higher, the report shows. The report did not specify how many veterans were 100% disabled.

For years, veterans and experts have praised experiences in nature as therapy for those suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Recreation in our national parks and public lands can be a valuable healing tool for veterans living with physical and emotional wounds as a result of their service,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “I’ll continue fighting to make sure our legislation crosses the finish line in Congress.”

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced the bill in the House in November.

"National parks can connect our veterans with nature and increase their spiritual, mental and physical well-being,” Ruiz said at the time. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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