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One final package of veterans' legislation is working its way through the 112th Congress, including a pilot program to provide off-base transition assistance classes for people already separated from the service.
The bill, S 3202, also orders creation of a registry of veterans who may have been exposed during military service to toxic fumes and airborne chemicals from open-air burn pits. It also requires two independent studies of the possible ill health effects of being near the open fires.
Also in the package are special rules for the burial of veterans with no next-of-kin and a requirement that national cemeteries respect the religious beliefs of families.
The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday and is expected to receive a final vote in the House on Friday.
Called the Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, the core of the bill is aimed at two separate controversies surrounding veterans' funerals.
It requires the Veterans Affairs Department to furnish a casket or urn for a deceased veteran when the veteran's estate doesn't have the money to pay for one and VA cannot locate a next-of-kin. It also gives families more leeway in using religious language in funerals.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairwoman, said the casket provision is a response to the discovery that a veteran in a Florida cemetery was buried in a cardboard box. The religious freedom provision is a response to controversy at a Texas cemetery involving whether the word "God" could be used during services.
"When America's heroes make a commitment to serve their country, we make a promise to care for them," Murray said in a statement. "That includes helping them access VA facilities and providing them with a burial befitting their service."
More job training
The off-base transition assistance classes in the two-year pilot project will be offered in three to five states, not designated in the bill. The classes are intended for veterans and their spouses who did not attend, or who want to repeat, transition classes offered while they were still in the military. There could be more than one site for classes in each state. National Guard and reserve facilities would be considered as possible locations as long as they are not located on an active-duty military installation.
The Labor Department, with help from VA, would be responsible for providing the training. After one year, the Government Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — would evaluate the off-base program to recommend whether it should be expanded.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, said granting access to off-base transition classes comes as courses have been expanded to provide better and more individualized information.
"Expanded access to TAP by offering instruction off-base will give veterans a second chance to participate in the new, revised program," he said in a statement. "With so many veterans out of work today, this provision will give them a leg up in their job search by arming them with the tools necessary to find a job in today's economy."
Burn pit concerns
Creation of a burn pit registry comes after years of discussion and opposition from the Defense Department and VA.
Under the bill, within a year VA must establish a list of veterans who may have been exposed to fumes and chemicals from the open-air pits in which deployed U.S. forces burned refuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be registered, a veteran must have been in the military since Sept. 10, 2001, and deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan at a location where a burn pit was used.
While details will be left to VA, the registry must include information about the current health of the exposed veterans and a way of monitoring their future health, a move that could help determine the potential ill health effects of being deployed downwind of the burning.
Two independent scientific reports are required, using the registry as part of the work. One study would be done two years after the registry is created. The second study would be done five years after the first study.