Three combat tours in Vietnam made him an effective fighting man, but those weren’t skills civilian employers were seeking.
“We didn’t get anything. Just one day I was shooting at people that were shooting at me. The next day I got on a plane and flew to Okinawa, then on to ‘Treasure Island,’ San Francisco, and back into society,” he said. “It was, ‘what is this?’”
Now, the former Marine is in a position to help today’s service men and women have a smoother transition than he had. The Columbus Democrat is the chairman of the Senate Veterans, Military & Homeland Security Committee, and with his counterpart in the House, Rep. John Yates, R-Griffin, he oversees most of the annual batch of military-related legislation.
Last year’s major accomplishment for Harbison and Yates was passage of legislation allowing Georgia to participate in a multi-state compact facilitating the transfer of military children from schools in one state to those in another. This year, the focus is on the service members themselves.
Yates, the only World War II veteran in the General Assembly, came home to parades, salutes and strangers eager to buy lunch for returning GIs. But there weren’t social programs for those struggling to make the adjustment. And Harbison’s experience decades later was less cordial and still lacking in support programs.
“If you go, we ask you to do unusual things. When you come back, we need to accommodate people because their lives have been disrupted in unusual ways,” Harbison said. “So, we should make reintegration into society as easy as possible.”
Unemployment, homelessness, medical and psychological scars and education are the chief issues today’s returning veterans face. Also, the high divorce rate and challenges repaying back child support without getting thrown into jail challenge some as well.
March 4, Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, won unanimous support in the Senate for legislation creating the Returning Veterans Task Force which would coordinate the efforts of all state agencies in serving vets.
Senate Bill 76 is similar to one Harbison introduced and provides the legal framework for information sharing and coordination. An early goal will be to coordinate benefit applications so a veteran only has to complete one to be considered by all of the benefit programs.
“This bill is about ensuring the fair and just treatment of our veterans when they return home,” Jackson said. “The men and women who selflessly serve our country deserve every resource our state has available when re-entering civilian life.”
Gov. Nathan Deal, himself an Army veteran, jumped to support a national effort seeking state credit for military training. Truckers, nurses and plumbers with military certification can get the chance to take state certification tests without sitting through more courses under House Bill 188, sponsored by one of Deal’s floor leaders.
“The training programs the military offers are extremely well structured and consequently, the people that come out of those programs know what they’re doing,” said Assistant Veterans Services Commissioner Don Holtz, a former Air Force vocational instructor.
The House passed HB 188 167-2 March 5.
However, Harbison’s Senate Bill 150 that would have granted college credit for relevant military experience is stuck in the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Deal included in his budget proposal for next year $10 million for a veterans training center in Warner Robins but not the $5 million locals sought for a similar building in Hinesville on land that city donated to Armstrong Atlantic State University.
The Hinesville campus isn’t the only disappointment this year. Two veterans’ bills didn’t pass the Legislature’s internal deadline Thursday.
One is House Bill 453 by Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, which would have exempted military-retirement pay from the state income tax. The bill stalled in the House Ways & Means Committee, and some observers say it could have constitutional problems as well.
Harbison’s SB 149 never left the Senate Government Operations Committee. It would have sweetened the state preference for purchasing from companies owned by veterans.
Overall, veterans have had a good legislative session, according to advocates.
“This session is a reaffirmation to me of the support that the state attempts to provide for our veterans,” Harbison said. “I think they stand for them every day, trying to make their way back home easier.”