BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker signed five laws on Monday to help Massachusetts’ veterans, three of which were proposed by Western Massachusetts representatives.
“In Western Massachusetts, we have a lot of veterans…These are obviously issues that are near and dear to our heart,” said state Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves.
The so-called Stolen Valor Act, sponsored by Velis, will make it illegal to impersonate a military member for financial gain.
State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, sponsored a law that will give Purple Heart recipients free access to Massachusetts state parks and recreation areas.
State Rep. Todd Smola, R-Warren, sponsored a law that will require anyone convicted of willfully damaging a war memorial or veteran’s gravestone or marker to pay restitution to the property owners.
The other new laws make it a crime to steal commemorative flag holders from veterans’ or first responders’ graves and to buy or sell stolen headstones or monuments from veterans’ or first responders’ graves.
“It’s very important for all of us to make sure that we remember the sacrifices and the commitment that our veterans, especially here in the commonwealth, make, and that we continue to think about them when we have opportunities to improve their quality of life and their experience in Massachusetts,” Baker said.
Veterans, many of them from Western Massachusetts, crowded into Baker’s office to witness the bill signings.
Brian Willette, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart’s Western Massachusetts chapter, said providing free park access for wounded veterans will help them with outdoor therapies.
“This is something an individual can do at no cost, visit the beautiful state parks we have, especially in Western Massachusetts,” Willette said.
Eric Segundo, state junior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, based in Ludlow, said veterans rallied around the Stolen Valor Act, which is the strongest of similar laws around the country. “Other states are looking at us…to enact the same bill,” Segundo said.
Victor Nunez Ortiz, post commander of the Amherst VFW, said it is important to prevent someone from faking military service. “Our veterans have worked hard, and blood, sweat and tears have gone into a lot of these medals and the title itself, veteran, and it’s important that we protect that,” Ortiz said.
Smola said without his bill, families would be responsible for paying the cost of a grave desecration, which could cost thousands of dollars. Requiring the defendant to pay, he said, “is the responsible thing to do.”