COLUMBIA- Dozens of South Carolina veterans gathered at the Statehouse on Wednesday to press lawmakers to boost benefits for those who served in the military and their families.
"We salute you and welcome you here, and hope you can convince our legislators to do more for our veterans," retired Army Col. David Lobb, of the state Military Officers Associated for America, told the gathering at the Statehouse steps.
More than a half-dozen representatives of military groups in the state addressed the group, many seated under sunny skies and amid colorful flags from their varied associations. Several elderly veterans were in wheelchairs and many wore the red, blue, or green caps and shirts of their respective organizations.
Representatives of the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans, the Military Officers Association of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vietnam Veterans of America attended. So did members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Retired Enlisted Association, and the South Carolina Associated of County Veterans Affairs Officers.
Lobb pointed to two bills before lawmakers that he said would benefit veterans and their families. One would allow in-state tuition at state colleges for veterans who indicate they would live in South Carolina, while the other allows increased tax exemptions for military retirement pay.
Both measures have passed the House. One senator has placed a hold in the Senate on the education benefits, while the tax exemption bill is awaiting a hearing before a subcommittee.
Other speakers said they are interested in getting lawmakers to expand state veterans' nursing homes, increasing mental health care and expand services for low income and homeless veterans.
James McDaniel, 76, of Greenwood, said he knows the importance of education benefits under the GI Bill, and said he was able to use it and get a college business degree after serving in Vietnam. "It's important, and extending it would certainly help," he said.
Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bruce Butler, 66, of Aiken, said he favors dropping South Carolina's taxation of military retirement benefits, because he thinks it would help the state's economy by enticing veterans to come live in the state.
He said he was aware the measure would cost the state about $24 million annually, "but that's a hiccup" compared to other items in the budget and what it might bring in to the state.
A study conducted last year for the governor's task force on military base closures found the U.S. military pumps nearly $16 billion into South Carolina's economy. The state is home to eight military installations and has about 56,000 military retirees.