One of the hardest parts of going to war comes afterward — trying to lead a normal life upon returning home, said Jim Kelly, an Iraq veteran.
“Some people come back with post-traumatic stress and are not able to cope with it,” he said. “Some of these people have ghosts and this is a disadvantage.”
On Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill into law that aims to make the transition from war to civilian life easier. The law establishes a new range of protections for veterans, from prohibiting employment discrimination to extending low-income housing options across the state.
The measure “continues to set the tone that Massachusetts leads the nation when it comes to the benefits and services that it provides our veterans,” said Francisco Ureña, secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Services. “There are provisions here that impact both active, reserve, national Guardsmen and women, Gold Star families.”
The measure — also called the HOME Act — passed with bipartisan support from the House and Senate.
It established the Office of State Veterans’ Homes and Housing within the Department of Veterans’ Services, which will provide state oversight to the Chelsea and Holyoke Soldiers’ Homes.
Under the new law, veterans will no longer be exempt from low-income housing opportunities when their income exceeds a minimum requirement and they will get preference for such housing statewide. Previously, veterans were only given preference for low-income housing within the communities where they live.
The ability to apply for low-income housing around the state is a win for eligible and qualified veterans, said Eric Segundo, vice commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“This will start to give the opportunity to veterans in being more flexible with their housing choices, and just improve their quality of life overall for them and their families,” said Segundo, who served in Iraq. “This is just another tool that veterans will have for their benefit in the state.”
Kelly said a notable provision of the measure is that it prohibits employers from discriminating against veterans. Only active military personnel were previously protected from discrimination by law.
Before the new law, there were no measures that prohibited employers from discriminating against a potential employee because he or she is a veteran.
“You want to see veterans’ issues at the forefront, because these are the young kids that take time out of their life to support our way of life,” he said. “So I don’t think they should ever be at a disadvantage.”
This provision adds veterans to the list of protected groups in Massachusetts, bringing workforce protections for them up to par with protections for race and gender.
The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination supported the measure to include veterans in the state’s anti-discrimination laws, said H. Harrison, an assistant to the commissioner.
“The commission anticipates an increased filing [of complaints] from veterans now that the bill is on the books,” Harrison said.
Other provisions of the law include expanding a public service scholarship program for children of Vietnam-era prisoners of war to children of all prisoners of war. It also allows state employees who leave home to engage in military service for more than 30 days to continue to be paid their state salary minus their military pay if the military pay is less.
This bill helped plug some holes in services that Massachusetts provides to its 400,000 veterans, said state Senator Michael Rush.
“We have been talking about this for five or six years,” said Rush, chairman of the joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs. “We see this as a step-by-step appraoch.”
Although there is always more work to be done, he said, this bill is another step toward helping veterans return to a normal life after war.Trisha Thadani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TrishaThadani