[Note from MOAA: Rep. Phil Roe will receive MOAA's 2019 Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award. The award is given annually to lawmakers who have distinguished themselves in protecting the rights and interests of uniformed servicemembers, their families, and survivors. Read about all of MOAA's 2019 award winners here.]
By Kristin Davis
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe can still see the face of classmate Johnny Parham, a fellow Eagle Scout-turned-Army sergeant who died half a century ago in Vietnam.
And he can still picture Tom Thayer, the scoutmaster who earned his respect on a grueling, 62-mile hike over two and a half days. To a young Roe, the scoutmaster and sergeant major had seemed like an old man. But Thayer was just 36 when he was killed in Vietnam.
It is their service - and their stories - that inspired Roe's passion for veteran issues. Elected to the House in 2008, the Republican from Tennessee served as chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee during the 115th Congress, which passed 80 bipartisan bills, 50 of which became law.
Some aim to be sweeping and transformative, such as the VA MISSION Act and Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act. Others, Roe says, simply aim to right wrongs, such as ensuring that if a servicemember is killed, his or her spouse can get out of a housing lease. Or that GI benefits never expire.
Roe also championed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act out of the full House. Though it failed in the Senate, it would have extended eligibility for disability compensation and health care to servicemembers who were exposed to Agent Orange while aboard ships. In the 116th Congress, Roe is once again fighting for these veterans.
Roe himself is a veteran; after earning a medical degree, he spent more than a year in the Army Medical Corps in South Korea.
That was towards the end of the Vietnam War, when servicemembers were told not to travel in their uniforms, he says. “The way our men and women were treated was really shameful.”
He also recalled the impact Thayer's death had his family. The soldier left behind a wife and four children.
“At that time, our lives were worth $10,000. That's really all they got,” Roe says. “Their lives were totally changed when their father was killed.”
When he got to Congress, the memory made him work that much harder. Still, Roe insists he has done nothing extraordinary.
The success of the last Congress “was a total committee effort,” he says. “There is no 'me' in that committee. One person cannot do it. The entire committee deserves this award. I am appreciative. I am also humbled.”
And motivated. The failure of the blue-water Navy Bill “is holding up benefits for a dwindling number of Vietnam-era veterans,” Roe says. He's not giving up on it.
Related reading: MOAA's 2019 Award Winners.
Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe
Distinguished Service Award
Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award