Green alert for veterans-at-risk supported through subcommittee

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House Study Bill 135 advanced out of subcommittee on Tuesday. The bill relates to the creation of a green alert program for missing veterans-at-risk. It’s similar legislation to what Wisconsin passed last year.

Sydney Gangestad, who represents Principal Financial Group, said the company strongly supports the bill.

“It’s add an extra layer of protection for our vets,” she said.

Michael Young, a Principal employee and Marine veteran who was deployed to Somalia, told the story of a veteran who worked at the Science Center of Iowa. His family was unable to locate him. They found his body at Water Works Park.

“His fiance and his boss made all kinds of efforts,” Young said. “They’re pretty confident if this was something around at that point it might’ve helped. But we’ll never know. Families have one last opportunity to reach out and help find their veteran in distress.”

Young said Wisconsin’s new alert system has been utilized four times. The missing veteran has been found three times.

“That’s a success rate of 75 percent,” Young said.

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Safety told Young the system hasn’t diluted the Amber Alert System.

John Benson, the legislative liaison for Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management, said he doesn’t believe the Amber Alert system is an option.

“It would be great if we could get to the federal system, but unless the federal law changes, I can’t get there nor can anybody else in this room get to it,” he said. “We have to look at different, creative ways to do this.”

Benson said Iowa does have a system called Alert Iowa that it pays $400,000 to operate.

“It’s mass messaging and has the capability to do a lot of the things we’re talking about in (the bill),” Benson said.

That wouldn’t exclusively be used for veterans, though. And, Benson said he’d like the program to be housed by the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management rather than the Department of Public Safety.

Eighty-eight Iowa counties use Alert Iowa. The remaining counties have their own systems. Benson pointed to Department of Transportation message boards along with lottery boards to get the message out.

“The concept is great,” Benson said. “I like what we’re trying to do here. I think we can make some improvements to it to actually incorporate it into the work we’re already doing with the Alert Iowa system.”

It was suggested to alter the language of the bill. Rather than having it be mandatory for law enforcement to issue a green alert, the language was changed to permissive.

“We want to create a system all encompassing for all vets, not just at-risk,” Gangestad said. “We’re definitely open to utilizing alternatives, as long as it’s something we can address this year.”

Benson said Iowa Homeland Security would be inclined to act whether the legislature passes a law or not.

Rep. Tim Kacena voiced concern over the privacy of veterans. He mentioned the possibility that a veteran wanted some time to be alone and would be hounded because a relative wondered where he might have gone.

“We have to be able to protect the veterans from the nosy family members,” Kacena said. “They have rights also.”

Tim Coonan, also with Principal Financial Group, said the risk of privacy violations doesn’t compare with the chance a veteran’s life could be saved due to the program.

“In this day in age where there’s such a pervasive mental health issue among veterans and a growing mental health issue among veterans,” he said. “Just to shine the light on it, talk about it, identify it I think it has value.”

Representative John Wills, a veteran himself, said he understands the concern about privacy but he also understands the reality of the situation.

“I have talked two people out of committing suicide,” he said. “I think this is a terrific discussion to have and to continue, even if we have it in committee. If we can get what you’re talking about done, that accomplishes what we want to have done without writing a law. I’m perfectly fine with that.”

Representative Tom Jeneary signed off in support as well.

“If we can save one veteran from committing suicide, this is worth it,” he said. “From what I’ve heard i would like to see this go forward to the full committee for consideration.