Political Horizons for Nov. 11, 2012

Honor medals — and politics

The U.S. Congress in June 1926 passed a resolution asking President Calvin Coolidge to proclaim Nov. 11 as the day to remember those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Louisiana in 2008 created a medal to honor the state’s veterans — 297,658 by last count.

This being Louisiana, the Veterans’ Honor Medal almost immediately got mired in politics that required additional legislation to sort things out. That legislative fix to take the politics out of appreciation has been in operation for more than a year now, and some veterans give the newly revised medal program high marks.

Steve dePyssler, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel from Bossier City asked his legislator, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, to sponsor legislation creating a gold-plated medal emblazoned with: “Louisiana appreciates your service to our country.” No legislator voted against Adley’s bill, which became law in August 2008.

“The only problem I ever had is that we had to wait for the governor,” dePyssler said last week. “If he didn’t come, we couldn’t hand out the medals.”

Lincoln Savoie, a retired career U.S. Army officer from Sunset, said he too was angered that the medals could only be given out by the governor at a ceremony, particularly since most of veterans are now in their 70s and 80s. “I witnessed, myself, old soldiers on crutches and on walkers, standing in the hot sun,” he said.

Changes were made to the medal law, which took effect June 20, 2011, that gives each veteran the option of having the medal mailed or having it presented at some special location, by the governor if he or she chooses; by someone else, if not.

As of last week, about 10,000 medals were mailed, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s almost 30 percent of the total 34,129 medals have been awarded since the program began four years ago.

“Fortunately, with the help of the new legislation, the medals are getting out a lot faster. The program is much improved,” Savoie said, adding that he now elderly encourages veterans to receive the medal in the mail.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s press secretary, Shannon Bates, said in a prepared statement that because of the high number of applications “it was helpful to hold ceremonies throughout the state.”

Jindal held 73 ceremonies in 50 parishes between Jan. 28, 2009 and Sept. 9, 2011, according to a review of the Governor’s Office press releases. (As an aside, the governor’s earlier press releases noted that Jindal signed into law the bill creating the medal. In later press releases, that wording morphed into “Gov. Jindal created the Louisiana Veterans Honor Medal in 2008 ...”)

Veterans Affairs counted 19,129 medals awarded at 83 events across the state, two of which were held after the revisions went into effect in June 2011.

“Sounds like my bill gave veterans an option they wanted and now take advantage of,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a graduate of United States Military Academy West Point who sponsored the legislation that specified presentation alternatives.

“My suspicions are that those ceremonies were, at least partly, political in nature,” said Edwards, D-Amite.

But Edwards said his opinion was jaded because in 2010, in response to veteran complaints, he drafted a resolution changing the manner in which the medals were presented. He withdrew the resolution on the promises by state Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Lane A. Carson to change the procedures administratively.

After the 2010 session adjourned, Carson reneged, Edwards said.

“I think he was overridden, but I know he was the one who called me,” Edwards said. “He took his orders like a good soldier.”

Angered, Edwards said he pushed a bill that changed the law, rather than recommending altering administrative procedures. No legislator voted against the bill.

“The governor hasn’t held a ceremony since the election,” Edwards noted.

Jindal was re-elected on Oct. 11, 2011 and records show that no further ceremonies involving the governor have been held since Sept. 9, 2011.

When asked why, Jindal issued a prepared statement that said, in part, “Honoring our veterans shouldn’t only happen on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day or at a medal ceremony, every day is an opportunity to thank the members of the Armed Forces.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.