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Legislation aims to preserve benefits for troops discharged as 'sole survivors'

April 17, 2008|Ben DuBose | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Nearly eight months ago, Iraq veteran and Fresno County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Hubbard lost the second of his two brothers in Iraq, leaving him as a "sole survivor" under military guidelines and requiring that he leave combat operations.

But after he returned home to Clovis, Calif., Hubbard, 33, was dealt another loss when the Army stripped him of his healthcare, took away GI Bill education benefits worth as much as $40,000 and demanded he repay his $6,000 enlistment bonus.

On Wednesday in Washington, Hubbard stood with four lawmakers at a news conference, attempting to solve that problem by introducing the Hubbard Act, a bill that would ensure full benefits to all soldiers discharged under the sole-survivor policy.

"I'm humbled by the attention this matter has got," Hubbard said. "This type of situation has occurred before and will occur again. It's important to me that in situations like this in the future, people will have some sort of coverage and transition package to go back into civilian life."

Hubbard was honorably discharged in October, but found that his transitional healthcare benefits had been taken away and no longer applied to his pregnant wife.

So Hubbard contacted his congressman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia), who began advocating on the war veteran's behalf in December.

"The Hubbard Act is important not only to right a wrong, but because it is quite simply inconceivable that any sole survivor would be treated the way Jason was," Nunes said.

Nunes spoke with Army Secretary Pete Geren, and the Army agreed to waive the requirement that Hubbard repay his enlistment bonus and to restore his wife's health benefits. But the Army did not restore health coverage for Hubbard and his 2-year-old son, and would not provide Hubbard with educational benefits.

Hubbard, his wife and his son all have permanent health coverage now because Hubbard was reinstated to his old job as a Fresno County sheriff's deputy last week.

He said he didn't blame the Army for what happened because there simply weren't "specific guidelines" set up to deal with such situations. But he and the lawmakers want to ensure that no other sole survivor confronts a similar problem.

"The secretary of the Army was alarmed by the situation and tried to help," Nunes said. "However, in the final analysis -- despite overwhelming recognition of this injustice -- we could not resolve all of the problems without legislation."

Lawmakers said they expected the bill, introduced in the House by Nunes and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and in the Senate by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), to win passage. Nunes pointed to the bipartisan support among the sponsors, and said that 234 members of Congress already had signed on to support the legislation.

"This is simply wrong," Feinstein said of the current policy. "These brave men and women have served their country honorably, and they've suffered great personal tragedies. To deny them separation benefits only adds insult to injury. Their country owes them more. This bill will ensure that they get the benefits that they are due."

The sole-survivor policy was designed during World War II to prevent all of the siblings in one family from being killed in the line of duty. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Department of Defense has identified 51 other sole survivors besides Hubbard, all of whom could be affected if the bill is approved.

The bill's benefits would be retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001.

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ben.dubose@latimes.com

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