BOSTON (SHNS) – Since its inception in 2009, Massachusetts has presented the Medal of Liberty to hundreds of families of veterans who died from wounds sustained in action or while performing duty in a combat zone. But lawmakers and military leaders believe the medal’s scope remains too limited.
The head of the Massachusetts National Guard and a group of legislators on Tuesday urged Beacon Hill to expand the Medal of Liberty to commemorate servicemembers who died in training accidents and to create a new, separate honor for veterans who die from service-related causes less “immediately apparent” than physical wounds.
A bill Gov. Charlie Baker filed (S 2462) would offer a “Medal of Fidelity” to families of military personnel who die from injuries or illnesses that are connected to their service but may not become known until some time afterward, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or a disease stemming from exposure to toxins.
“While the duty of administering the Medal of Liberty is an honor and a privilege, it has become apparent it is not enough to fully honor the families of Massachusetts servicemembers who have answered the call of military duty, served the nation with honor and courage, and lost their lives protecting others,” Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, told the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.
“There are injuries and wounds related to military service that frequently are not immediately apparent or that do not necessarily take place on the field of battle, but are no less real,” Keefe added.
A three-member commission of the National Guard’s adjutant general and two field-grade officers would oversee applications for the Medal of Fidelity, similar to management of the existing Medal of Liberty program.
The new medal would cover several different injuries and diseases resulting from exposure during service to toxic chemicals across different eras and military branches.
Keefe said it would apply to illnesses caused by Agent Orange or other defoliant exposure, oil fire exposure sometimes known as Gulf War Syndrome, burn pit exposure, debris inhalation during response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and more.
Bryan Carr, whose father, James, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, told the committee about the debilitating complications his father suffered as a result of his exposure to defoliants such as Agent Orange. James Carr became 100 percent disabled when he was about 65 years old as a result, Bryan said, yet the illness does not fall within the scope of the existing Medal of Liberty.
“My mother was his primary caretaker during the time of his disability until the time she could no longer take it and he had to become a resident of the VA hospital here in Bedford,” Bryan Carr said. “My mother went through a great deal of difficulty being my father’s caretaker. The opportunity for the commonwealth to recognize her sacrifice and her difficulties really would mean a lot to her.”
Another bill (H 3682) before the Veterans Committee, filed by Reps. Brian Murray of Milford and Michael Soter of Bellingham, would expand eligibility for the Medal of Liberty to include families of servicemembers who died during training exercises.
Murray recounted attending a medal ceremony in Milford where officials handed out more than 50 awards. Several families approached him afterward to tell stories of loved ones who died during their military service but outside the scope of combat-related causes, Murray said.
“Even though their situation was not necessarily combat-related, the dedication of our servicemen and women as well as the loss the families suffer are no less than if it were combat-related,” he said.