Gov. Tony Knowles signed legislation this morning to award high school diplomas to Alaskans who dropped out to fight in World War II.
Knowles, a Vietnam veteran, appeared with other state officials and veterans in front of an exhibit in the Alaska State Museum describing the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska and the attack on Dutch Harbor.
Veterans who made "the patriotic choice" to drop out of school to fight often found that circumstances upon their return prevented them from returning to graduate, the governor said.
The new law allows the state commissioner of education to award diplomas to applicants who served in the U.S. armed forces or the Alaska Territorial Guard between Aug. 7, 1940, and July 25, 1947. Posthumous diplomas also can be awarded if family members apply.
"This may seem like a small token, but I know that it means a lot to Joe Sadlier of Ketchikan," Knowles said, going on to name several other veterans. Sadlier, who was present for the signing ceremony, made international news in January when he was among World War II veterans who sailed a mothballed Navy ship from Crete to Alabama.
Knowles also used the occasion to complain about inaction in the Legislature on his plan to establish a veterans' preference in the six state-run Pioneers Homes, adding veterans to the title and setting aside 21 percent of the beds for them.
He also has proposed a $2.5 million funding hike for new staff to fill 100 or more vacancies in the assisted-living, nursing and boarding facilities.
"My proposal is getting little if any attention in the Legislature," the governor said.
"We owe it to the veterans; that's what they've earned," said Adjutant Gen. Phil Oates, the commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Alaska is the only state that doesn't have a veterans home, and there's no chance of getting one if Knowles' legislation, which is a cheaper alternative for the state, doesn't pass, Oates said. Alaska has the second highest number of veterans, per capita, in the country, he said.
Administration Commissioner Jim Duncan said that while a House-Senate conference committee on the budget is considering increased salaries for nurses in the Pioneers Homes, "It would not increase our ability to fill beds."
Currently, there are 90 veterans among the approximately 470 residents of the six homes, or 19 percent. Veterans make up 30 percent of the waiting list, as well as 30 percent of the over-65 population statewide, so their numbers would increase even without the preference, according to administration officials. The homes have a combined capacity of 600 residents.
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com.