Miss. veterans get boost from lawmakers

Published 11:43 pm Monday, May 11, 2009

Mississippi motorists’ love affair with specialty car tags has grown by leaps and bounds. This year alone, the Legislature approved nearly two dozen new designs.

Three stand out — not only because of who they recognize, but also for who they help.

Mississippi has veterans nursing homes in Collins, Jackson, Kosciusko and Oxford. Operated by the State Veterans Affairs Board, the four homes serve many veterans who are indigent. The state appropriates money to help operate the homes, but more is needed.

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The Veterans Affairs Board hopes to break ground by early November on the first state-operated cemetery for military veterans. The 75-acre site along Interstate 20 in Newton County was donated by Mississippi State University.

The first phase of 20 acres is set to be completed 12 to 15 months after construction begins. There will be space for 5,000 conventional burials and cremations.

The cemetery would be available for an estimated 80,000 eligible veterans who live in a 75-mile radius that stretches west to metropolitan Jackson, south to Hattiesburg, north to Columbus and into parts of western Alabama.

The cemetery, too, requires money.

In 2008, the Legislature approved a Gold Star Tag to honor veterans who were killed in action or died in a combat zone since Sept. 11, 2001. Parents and spouses of the soldiers receive the tag for free. Other relatives pay the extra $30. Proceeds from the Gold Star tag help pay for care of indigent veterans in the veterans nursing homes.

A Vietnam Veterans tag became available in January 2009, according to the Mississippi State Tax Commission. The veterans nursing home will receive $24 from the sale of each tag. As of May 2, the Tax Commission said 227 had been issued.

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, the Veterans Nursing Home Fund received $236,622 from the tag sales, according to Tax Commission records.

There are other tags such as Bronze Star recipients (458 sold last fiscal year), Silver Star (35) and Honoring Veterans (455), which all provide $24 per tag to the veterans nursing homes. A veterans tag (7,189) sends $30 per tag for support of the nursing homes.

Legislation signed by the governor in April creates tags for Iraq veterans, Afghanistan veterans and for recipients of the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

Money from each of the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran tags go to the nursing homes and the cemetery. Funds from the Navy and Marine Corps Medal tags go to the nursing homes.

State law says that before any specialty tag design can be manufactured, at least 200 must be sold. The requirement was lowered to 100 for the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran tags.

Nearly 10,000 Mississippi National Guard soldiers and airmen have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The figure does not include regular armed services personnel, such as the Seabees.

Adrian Guice, executive director of the State Veterans Affairs Board, said people are very proud of their military service and survivors are proud of loved ones’ service.

Guice said the Mississippi Military Department is assisting in designing the Iraq and Afghanistan tags.

“The tags really help us support primarily the indigent veterans in the homes and it will help with the cemetery,” Guice said. “And we’ve got so many National Guard guys going to Iraq and Afghanistan and they are so proud of their service that this is a way to honor that and help us too.”