BOSTON >> Speaking to a group of veterans and veterans' service officers Wednesday, state lawmakers touted Massachusetts as the state with the best veterans' service programs in the nation, and pointed to legislation in the works as evidence of their ongoing commitment to those who served in the armed forces.
Sen. Michael Rush, a U.S. Navy Reserve officer, and Rep. Jerald Parisella, a veteran of the Army Reserve, told the luncheon crowd about the several veterans-related bills passed last year — including those that made it a crime to pretend to be a veteran for financial gain, providing free state park access to Purple Heart recipients and punishing those who damage veterans' graves — and said that the Legislature hears the demands of citizens to do as much as possible to care for veterans.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said work on behalf of veterans on Beacon Hill is not done, and that Rush and Parisella, who together chair the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, are currently crafting bills to further protect veterans.
"Something like six pieces of legislation got to the governor's desk on, before or just after Veterans Day this fall, some very significant bills," Rosenberg said. "I know that Chairman Rush and Chairman Parisella are working hard now on another package of legislation which we hope will be ready to be considered as we approach Memorial Day."
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who hosts the annual veterans lunch, called attention to the dozens of lawmakers in attendance Wednesday, and urged them and the veterans' service officers to use the opportunity to discuss pending legislation.
"Hopefully today all the elected officials and all the veterans service officers here today will take the time to sit down and talk a little bit, what's going on in their particular communities with veterans and, most importantly, what pieces of legislation are out there that are of concern for the veterans," the speaker said. "That's really the main purpose that we put this together, to better educate the elected officials in terms of what's in the State House that's of concern to our veterans across the commonwealth."
Thomas Lyons, the legislative agent for the Massachusetts Veterans' Service Officers Association, said the organization's list of priorities includes veterans' housing and maintaining veterans' preference in civil service exams.
Gov. Charlie Baker spoke about seeing how veterans from his hometown Swampscott were supported after returning from the Middle East over the last 15 years and the important work of veterans' service officers.
Baker struck a somber tone as he called this "a very difficult week for veterans and their families" in Massachusetts, referring to the news that United States Marine Corps Corporal Christopher Orlando, a 23-year-old Hingham native, was among 12 Marines who went missing after two helicopters crashed into the ocean off the northern coast of Hawaii's Oahu island last week. On Wednesday, the Coast Guard announced the search and rescue mission had been called off, giving way to a recovery mission.
"I talked to his parents over the weekend. Not as governor, but as a dad who has a 25-year-old and a 22-year-old son," Baker said, his voice wavering as he spoke. "We talked about raising boys who are a complete and utter hot mess most of the time. And they talked about how much the chance to serve his country and become part of something bigger had really changed almost everything about him. For the first time he felt the sense of purpose and direction, camaraderie, that he had never felt before."
The veterans' service officers at Wednesday's State House luncheon, Baker said, are "part of a really important community, a community that is fundamentally grounded in the message that we try to deliver as public officials to the men and women who serve, and their families."
"Which is thank you, thank you, thank you," he said.