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Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington DC

BELATED THANK YOU TO THE MERCHANT MARINERS OF WORLD WAR II ACT OF 2007

Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass the bill (H.R. 23) to amend title 46, United States Code, to provide benefits to certain individuals who served in the United States merchant marine (including the Army Transport Service and the Naval Transport Service) during World War II, as amended.

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, before I get to these specific bills, let me just say, as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, we are at a critical time in our Nation in dealing with our veterans. George Washington said it best over 200 years ago when he stated that "the morale of our active duty troops depends foremost on how they sense they're going to be treated when they come home.'' So we have a lot of work to do.

We have a Secretary who has announced his resignation. Recently, just last week, the Dole-Shalala Commission released its report on some major changes for the VA and the DoD for the way we deal with our veterans and our wounded warriors. We need someone in that position, I think, who will shake things up a bit, who will not only do the Dole-Shalala recommendations, but go further and really talk to two bureaucracies that have to do business far better than what they do. Too often, VA means for our veterans "veterans adversary'' instead of "veterans advocate.''

We have older veterans, like we're going to be dealing with in the bill up now, and we are going to have hundreds of thousands of new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a critical job that we must do. And I always say, no matter where we are in the war in Iraq, we're going to make sure that every young man and woman who comes back from the war gets all the love, the care, the attention, the honor, the dignity that a Nation can bestow.

So we have a big job to do. And this package of bills we have today addressed both older veterans that we still have to care for and make sure any injustices that came up in their treatment are taken care of, as well as the needs that are so critical, whether they be brain injury or PTSD of the new veterans. We have to deal with both groups, and we have to do it right.

I want to speak now on H.R. 23, the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act.

This is a bill that is six decades overdue, Mr. Speaker. And I think today we are on the verge of doing a historic thing, that is, providing a way to finally give the heroic merchant mariners of World War II the belated compensation that they've so richly earned and deserve.

I think this Congress not only has to treat those new veterans coming back from Iraq, but we have the responsibility to correct the wrongs of the past, and this is one of the grave injustices that deserves rectification.

There are over 250 Members of this House who have cosponsored H.R. 23. But for those who haven't, let me tell you about the sad history of these forgotten heroes. The Merchant Mariners of World War II traversed the dangerous U-boat laden waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, faced down fierce attacks from enemy aircraft, and were instrumental in every theater of war by carrying 95 percent of all tanks, supplies and troops during World War II. As a result, they suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the military branches.

It is indisputable that the allied forces would not have been able to begin, sustain or end World War II in victory without their valiant and selfless service. It is also indisputable, Mr. Speaker, that these men now are entitled to be compensated for their service.

After the war, they did not receive the recognition as veterans, or the benefits of the unprecedented GI Bill of 1944, which, in many people's minds, they had earned. We all know the profound effects of that GI Bill on building the middle class. We all know that the education and ability to buy homes led to the creation of the success of the generations following World War II.

At the signing of that bill in 1944, the GI Bill, which gave these veterans unprecedented education, housing, small business loans and health benefits, President Roosevelt himself declared, "I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to members of the merchant marine, who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.'' Succeeding Congresses up until now have never done that.

Their fight for equity continued for all the time since then, and even for the time after they finally attained veteran status after a lengthy court battle that was decided in 1987, which by then, 40 years after the war, over 125,000 merchant mariners had died.

We've had the distinct privilege at the Veterans' Affairs Committee of receiving the heart-wrenching testimony of some of these veterans, one of whom was a named party in the lawsuit which finally gave him veteran status, a merchant mariner named Stanley Willner. Stanley was captured, interned, beaten, starved and tortured as a POW for 3 years. In fact, he was actually one of the unfortunate groups of allied forces that were forced to build the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. Upon release, he weighed a mere 74 pounds. When he returned home, his wife didn't recognize him, but neither did his country. He received just 2 weeks of medical care and little else for his service to this Nation. What a miscarriage of justice.

Mr. Speaker, it was only due to a sad confluence of powerful events after the war that this country did not bestow the brave men of the World War II Merchant Marine with veteran status. Their service was recognized by all the leaders of the Allied Forces from Generals MacArthur to Eisenhower.

I will include a list of quotes regarding their courageous service in the Record. I will also add a letter from the four maritime unions, the American Maritime Officers, the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, and the Seafarers International Union, expressing their strong support for H.R. 23, as amended.

Mr. Speaker, the time has come to right this enduring wrong. To me, failing to correct the injustice suffered by the merchant mariners for the past six decades is equivalent to an employer telling a group of 20-year-olds at the same company doing the same job that 85 percent of them will receive additional health, education, housing, and loan assistance benefits for the rest of their lives for their service, but the remaining 15 percent would not. Then, over 40 years later, the employer is forced to recognize the mistake and informs the 15 percent, sorry, we will give you what has not expired, but nothing else.

Where is the fairness? Where is the equity? How do you measure the loss of these benefits, the missed opportunities and the dreams unrealized? That is what H.R. 23 tries to make up for, to create the semblance of equity that the mariners of World War II so richly deserve by providing a monthly stipend to qualifying mariners on a first-come-first-served basis.

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, we have a new Member from New Hampshire that I will call the ``not-so-gentle-lady'' because she has been incredibly active and taken a leadership role in passage of this bill.

Mr. Speaker, I yield such time as she might consume to the gentlewoman from New Hampshire (Ms. Shea-Porter).

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Mr. FILNER. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman for his endorsement, support, and leadership on our committee. He has raised some very good questions that I hope our committee will deal with.

Mr. Speaker, without a doubt, these men, now all of them are in their eighties, the average age is 83, in fact, of the remaining 10,000 that are alive, have earned and deserve this delayed compensation. They fought the good fight. They gave our country everything they could.

This is what H.R. 23 will do, provide the merchant mariners with the compensation they earned and have been denied for decades, not just in words, but in deeds.

Mr. Speaker, I ask all the Members of this House for the support of this historic piece of legislation


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