, Salem, MA

February 12, 2014

Our view: Getting serious about veterans’ benefits

The Salem News

---- — There’s a reason why Massachusetts offers so many benefits to veterans.

Those who are willing to lay down their lives to protect the lives, properties and freedoms of their fellow citizens have earned our respect and our gratitude. They also deserve our assistance in returning to civilian life when their tours of duty are over. So, we provide tuition waivers at public universities, preference for public housing and Civil Service jobs, health care at VA hospitals and a myriad of other services.

That is not to say it’s enough.

We’ve all read about the scandal of substandard health care for wounded veterans and the difficulty many have found in accessing counseling and mental health care. These are real needs that need real dollars to resolve, and it is one of our greatest shames that we allowed these things to happen.

Given that context, we have a hard time viewing Peabody’s recent dalliance with free parking for veterans as anything more than an irrelevant distraction.

For sure, there has been no national outcry from veterans who feel disrespected, much less stressed, because they have to put a quarter in the parking meter like everyone else. Free parking is not one of the freedoms they fought for, and it bears no relationship to their service. It doesn’t ease the burden of returning to civilian life in any meaningful way, nor does it help to prepare them for new careers and new lives.

It doesn’t even save them very much money. It was put off last week when backers discovered that the veterans license plate that would be required — so police could verify someone was entitled to free parking — costs $50. (All of that money goes to the Soldiers Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke.) Since a veteran would have to do a whole lot of free parking to offset that cost, it was decided to brainstorm for some other way to identify veterans who would be entitled to this “honor.”

In fact, this seems to be the pet project of a single veteran, who served four years in the Army in the 1970s, and who got miffed after he got a parking ticket. He has described his quest for free parking as Operation Eternal Gratitude.

Now, city officials are bent on coming up with something, maybe some kind of sticker to give veterans so they can claim their free parking. This makes it more complicated. There are nearly half a million veterans living in Massachusetts. Would only those who reside in Peabody be worthy of the honor of free parking? How would veterans get their stickers? Who would pay for them? How would eligibility be enforced, and who would enforce it? How would police know whether a veteran had stayed more than the one free hour in a designated spot, unless they start keeping track of all veterans’ vehicles? All this to save someone 25 cents on a parking meter?

City councilors may have the best of intentions when they talk about honoring veterans. But this particular legislation seems more like pandering than a meaningful effort to assist and to honor those who have served our country.

The efforts expended on this would be far better spent raising funds for Operation Troop Support, mentoring young veterans starting out in new civilian careers, lobbying for better and more efficient VA services, and continuing such public tributes as the annual veterans breakfast at City Hall.

Let’s not pay lip service to veterans by doling out “eternal gratitude” a quarter at a time. Let’s honor them by addressing their real needs in a serious way.