Knowles pitches bills to help veterans

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Flanked by veterans of war and fellow Democrats, Gov. Tony Knowles today unveiled a package of bills to assist and recognize vets, declaring 2002 the Year of the Veteran.

One of the measures would continue a program for guaranteed finance of veterans' mortgages through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Knowles said. The bill would authorize the corporation to sell $500 million in bonds, which would be backed by the mortgage payments.

The measure would not tap the state treasury and would require voter approval, said Knowles, noting Alaskans approved a similar measure in 1986.

"This is a valuable program. Last year, 430 veterans received $73 million in loans at the lowest possible interest rates, without any income limitations," he said.

Senate President Rick Halford said he supported the bill. "It's a continuation of a good program," the Chugiak Republican said through a spokesman.

Another bill seeks $125,000 in state matching money for an endowment fund to maintain, repair or renovate veterans' memorials in Alaska. The money would match $125,000 in private donations already pledged, he said.

A third bill would name a bridge over the Knik River on the Glenn Highway after Sgt. James Bondsteel, a Vietnam War veteran awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor who was killed in a car accident on the bridge in 1987.

Knowles also gave honorary high school diplomas to two World War II veterans, including Thomas Gemmell of Juneau who died in 1996.

Gemmell completed the 10th grade, then enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard in 1941. He served as a machinist mate aboard U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the Atlantic and Pacific and saw combat in the Philippines aboard the USS Leonard Wood, a Coast Guard manned attack transport. Gemmell moved to Juneau in 1973 and worked as a commercial troller for 20 years.

Gemmell's son, Tom Gemmell of Juneau, requested the honorary degree for his father and accepted it on his behalf, along with the elder Gemmell's grandson, Jed Gemmell.

"I think it would be nice for him to have it, but I don't want to take away from the fact the diploma didn't stop him from doing anything," said Tom Gemmell. "He was a self-educated guy in terms of what he learned."

Knowles also issued a high school diploma to the late Olen Hermann, who joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. Hermann's plane was shot down on a bombing raid near Mukden, Manchuria and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war. His granddaughter, Sheila Box of Juneau, requested the certificate for Hermann, who lived in Oregon and died in 2001.

"My mother had told me that he never graduated from high school and that it was something he regretted," Box said. "I did it to honor her and to honor him."

Kathy Dye can be reached at

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