House Passes Legislation to Support Veterans at Public Colleges and Universities and to Honor Women Veterans

(BOSTON) – The Massachusetts House of Representatives unanimously passed two pieces of legislation on Wednesday to improve mental health care for student Veterans and to recognize Veterans’ historical contributions.

“We’re proud today to take action to further support and recognize veterans for their service and sacrifice to our country, especial those who are students and may be suffering from the invisible wounds of war,” saidHouse Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. “By building a memorial to recognize the contributions and bravery of Deborah Sampson, we send a deserving message of validation and support for our past, present and future female service members. I thank Chair Campbell for her thoughtful and diligent work on these issues.”

The first bill, filed by Representative James Arciero of Westford, will expand access to mental health care for Veterans in higher education by creating a continuing education program to train public higher education counselors on the symptoms of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and available resources for treatment. The program will be developed and carried out by the University of Massachusetts Medical School and will include instruction on military culture and its influence on student Veteran learning, as well as common challenges faced by Veterans in higher education.

Public higher education is an important avenue through which Veterans transition back into civilian life and prepare for productive and meaningful careers. Yet many student Veterans struggle with PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal ideation, conditions that make success in the classroom significantly more challenging. Student Veterans are also at greater risk for social isolation and report feeling less supported by their peers.

Given the high risk of the student Veteran population and their unique needs, it is necessary for counselors, both clinical and non-clinical, at the state’s 29 institutions of public higher education to have the tools to support Veterans who are grappling with the invisible wounds of war. This legislation will create a stronger network of on-campus care to ensure that student Veterans feel understood and supported, and that their needs do not slip through the cracks.

With roughly 2,500 student Veterans enrolled in the UMass system, a number that will likely increase as more Veterans take advantage of educational benefits in the federal Post-9/11 GI Bill and proposed in the Massachusetts BRAVE Act, this legislation is a necessary measure to guarantee Veterans in higher education have the resources to succeed.

The legislation requires the continuing education program to be developed within 180 days of passage of the bill. The program represents a strong collaboration between UMass Medical School and the state’s public colleges and universities that will both save costs and improve effectiveness

The second bill establishes a commission to design a memorial in the State House for Deborah Sampson, a hero of the American Revolution who disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the Continental Army.

In 1782, Sampson used the name “Robert Shurtleff” to join the elite Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment led by Captain George Webb at West Point, New York. Over the following year and a half, she participated in dangerous scouting missions, led a raid that brought about the capture of 15 Tory men, and stormed a British fort during the Siege of Yorktown.

In the course of her service, Sampson sustained injuries including a forehead gash from a sword and a gunshot wound to the thigh. For the latter, she removed the bullet herself to avoid detection as a woman. Her identity was later discovered when she fell seriously ill, became unconscious, and had to be taken to a hospital. On October 23, 1783, Sampson was honorably discharged and was the only woman to receive a full military pension for her participation in the Continental Army.

Sampson was held in high esteem by key historical figures in the Revolutionary period. John Hancock and Paul Revere assisted her in obtaining her military pension, and General John Patterson selected her as his aide de camp on account of her bravery and leadership. He frequently noted her boldness in charging into battle on horseback, leading her fellow soldiers.

Sampson has received significant recognition on the state and federal levels. She is the official state heroine of Massachusetts, and May 23rd is annually recognized in Massachusetts as Deborah Sampson Day. The Massachusetts Women Veterans’ Network has named an award in her honor that is given each year to a woman Veteran who demonstrates exceptional service to her community and in her military career. The federal government commissioned a ship in Sampson’s honor during World War II, dubbed the Liberty Ship S.S. Deborah Gannett (her married name). Because of her impressive feats of bravery, her historical significance, and her widespread renown, Sampson meets the very high bar set for those who are worthy of being memorialized in the State House.

The commission will consist of 15 members including legislators, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Service, the Adjutant General of the Commonwealth, and representatives of several Veterans organizations. Members of the commission will discuss the design and location of Sampson’s memorial as well as where funding should come from. The legislation requires the commission to issue its recommendations by March 1, 2020.

The two bills now await passage in the Senate.