RMI vets seek benefit fix

In December 2020, US military veterans led a color guard during a ceremony to celebrate establishment of the American Legion Post 22 in Majuro. Photo: Giff Johnson.

GIFF JOHNSON

Veterans from the Marshall Islands and the other freely associated states, all nations aligned with the US through Compacts, must travel at great personal expense to take advantage of health benefits they earned by their service in the US military. The practical impact of this situation is that most Marshallese veterans are completely unable to access health services available through the US Veterans Administration to which they are entitled.

Majuro Nitijela Member and Army Kalani Kaneko has led advocacy over the past number of years to find ways to extend services to veterans living at home in the islands.
“RMI veterans benefit issues have been on our radar for two decades but somehow nobody seems to know the solution,” Kaneko told the Journal last week. “This long period of waiting became a question and concern to our veterans resident in the RMI (who are) both RMI and US citizens. Now that we all served honorably in peace and in war to protect the democracy, freedom, and identity wherever we were needed, what is our value? This is the question we asked of US and RMI government leaders. Why do we have to wait over two decades and still no answer for our veterans.”

Last week’s adoption by the US House of Representatives of HR3730 is a step in the right direction and one that Kaneko and others have been supporting. The House legislation amends legislation of the Veterans Administration, establishing the VA Advisory Committee on the US Outlying Areas and Freely Associated States. Assuming that it also passes the US Senate and is ultimately signed into law by President Biden, the legislation will establish the advisory committee with representatives from all US-affiliated islands.
This will give island veterans their first direct voice in policies of the US Veterans Administration.

“US Veterans living in RMI are not asking for special treatment,” said Kaneko. “We are simply asking to be treated like our bothers and sisters-in-arm who are living in the States and Philippines. If VA can provide these VA services in the Philippines, why can they do the same in RMI, FSM, and Palau.”
Based on the fact that there were over 700 Marshallese service members — active and retired — on an Army listing in 2014, there are likely several thousand US military veterans throughout the three freely associated states.

Kaneko believes it essential to keep elevating the level of discussions to get the health service issue resolved for island veterans. Negotiations with the US for extending and modifying provisions of the Compact of Free Association offer an ideal platform to get veterans needs into the treaty between the two nations and into US legislation.
“Our veterans would like to have our issues on the table during the Compact renegotiation,” said Kaneko. “This course of action may be the best and least traumatic for the US government because they will not have to deal with other veterans in other parts of the world who may want the same type of service (to) be available.” This idea depends heavily on the RMI government’s interest to take up the issue at the talks with the US.

“I understand the red tape of politics,” said Kaneko. “But I still believe that if we work together, if we make it a priority, we can make the change quick. But it will never be a priority unless somebody makes it a priority.”

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