House committee votes to honor public servants killed on home soil

A House panel on Wednesday passed a legislative provision requiring the Defense Department to give civilian employees and military members injured or killed in last year's shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, and at a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting station the same benefits and recognition as those wounded in combat zones.

The House Armed Services Committee passed the amendment by voice vote as part of a daylong markup of the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which carves out $760 billion in funding for the Pentagon, Energy Department security programs, support for overseas contingency operations and relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. The panel passed the authorization bill 59-0.

The language would set a precedent of recognizing as combat casualties those wounded by terrorist acts in noncombat zones and on U.S. soil.

Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., proposed the amendment to acknowledge the borderless realities of war.

"Things have changed in this country," Coffman said. "That's why it is significant that we have, in fact, listed both of those events in this bill as well as defined under what circumstances prospectively others will be defined as combat casualties."

Also during the markup, the panel approved an amendment that would protect conversations between victims of sexual assault and counselors from disclosure.

The provision, offered by Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, follows reports of increasing sexual assault in the armed services. It would require conversations with sexual assault victim advocates to be treated in the same way as confidential communications between patients and psychiatrists, encouraging service members to seek help without fear that information divulged could be used against them.

Service members would not be the only beneficiaries of the bill. The committee also included a provision to establish a pilot program that would give military spouses customized career guidance.

Another amendment would require Defense to review programs to advance educational opportunities for military spouses, and to study how such opportunities could affect retention.

But amid discussions of workforce and personnel-related amendments, one hot-button issue remained taboo. Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., established at the outset that the ban on open gays in the military would be off-limits at the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.

In late April, Gates and Mullen wrote Skelton, asking that Congress hold off on a vote to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy until the Pentagon had thoroughly reviewed how to roll out changes.

Skelton said he and the panel's ranking member, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., "have agreed to support Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates' request for time to study the issue. And we do not support this issue being raised in this markup."

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