U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal at Huntsville West and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the final installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is the military and military families.
HBJ: Huntsville is a military town, nicknamed “Pentagon South.” Tell us what is going on with military spending and families.
Sen. Jones: I’m on the Armed Services Committee. Alabama is extremely important to the nation’s security and our military forces. One of the things that we are trying to do, working with the administration, is to upgrade our military forces across the board.
We’ve got to spend money to upgrade what they call the “nuclear triad” of missiles for protection. We’ve got to upgrade submarines, planes, you name it. It’s all aging and we’re going to have to spend some money.
What we’re looking at now, is a whole new area of potential war and conflict. It’s not just in the air or sea or land anymore; it’s in space. This year, in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), we’ve created the Space Force. I’m hoping the Space Command will come here to Huntsville. That decision is going to come relatively soon.
The other thing I’ve focused was families, our servicemen and women. There’s a 3.1 percent increase this year in the salaries for service members, which is the first one they’ve had in a while.
We’ve also done things to put extra money into education, trying to help the kids of service members that move around a lot, and also for kids with disabilities.
We’ve done things for military spouses. Military spouses often have professional certifications that are hard to transfer when they move. We’re trying to do things to make that certification transfer easier.
HBJ: What piece of military legislation stands out for you?
Sen. Jones: The biggest thing that I’m proudest of, after a 30-year fight, is the work that I did in the Senate this year to get the military widows’ tax eliminated for good. It was a really, really big deal.
Although it only affects some 2,000 people in Alabama, it’s 2,000 people that are now going to get $1,200-$1,500 a month more.
There was a statutory set of money that the VA has administered for a long time.
Those funds were to be distributed to widows when a service member dies in combat or of a service-related injury. In many cases, service members buy additional insurance to provide additional benefits for their families. That money is administered by the Department of Defense and it’s something that service members pay for – out of their own pockets.
About 35 years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing the Department of Defense and the VA to offset the two.
If a widow was entitled to both pots of money, they’d only get 55 percent. This means money that service members have paid into – was going to the Department of Defense and staying there.
I didn’t know about it, never heard about it and then some of the Gold Star widows came to us and talked about it.
I just about blew a gasket. How can that be?
They showed me that it has been tried for 20 years to overturn and I told them, “This year, we’re going to do something different.”
It’s a commitment that was made to our service members that the federal government and Congress has fallen down on. Getting this tax eliminated was more than just a job for us, it was a mission; it was a cause. Everyone in the office chipped in; we ended up getting close to 80 co-sponsors in a very partisan senate.
I got Susan Collins (R-Maine) to co-sponsor it with me in the Senate. Together, we got so many co-sponsors, we organized it like a political campaign.
Every recess, every town hall, there was somebody there, asking about the military widows’ tax.
It got to the point that when it went up to Congress, the negotiators for the NDAA said, “We’ve just got do this.”
When it passed, there were about 25 to 30 of those Gold Star widows up in the gallery.
It was awesome. It was really, really awesome.
I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never been with a group of people so appreciative of an act of Congress as those military widows, it has been remarkable.