Speaking Up for Silence

One Tufts family’s quest to get a Veterans Day bill through Congress

Vietnam war memorial in Washington

Even on YouTube, it gives you chills: a plaintive siren wails and people stop in their tracks, cars pull over on crowded highways, and the entire country of Israel grinds to a halt for exactly two minutes. In 2010, Peter Bendetson, A71, M77, and his son Daniel, then a high school senior, were at a busy intersection in Tel Aviv when they experienced Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

When the two returned home to Weston, Massachusetts, they described the scene to Peter’s other son, Michael Bendetson, A12, and the brothers began to wonder if something similar would be possible in the United States. “Our vets don’t receive the recognition they deserve,” says Michael, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. “Holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day seem to focus more on car and mattress sales than on their sacrifices.”

The Bendetsons imagined observing Veterans Day with two minutes of silence spanning seven time zones, beginning at 3:11 p.m. in Puerto Rico and 9:11 a.m. in Hawaii. The elevens, of course, hark back to the World War I armistice, which was signed at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

Encouraged by their dermatologist father and unencumbered by knowledge of how Washington actually operates, the brothers began their quest by meeting with U.S. congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who suggested that their best bet was to work on getting a law passed. Former senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.), A81, joined Frank to sponsor the bill.

In 2012, Daniel and Michael testified before the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. The subcommittee unanimously approved the bill, then-senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) signed on as co-sponsors, the full Veterans Affairs Committee subsequently approved the measure, and it was ready for a vote in the House of Representatives.

Then came the “fiscal cliff”—the looming budgetary crisis of early 2013—and a moment of silence to honor veterans was the last thing on lawmakers’ minds. The bill never reached the floor. To complicate matters, Frank, Lieberman and Webb retired, and Brown lost re-election. The bill had lost its sponsors, and by 2013 the Bendetsons were back to square one.

In the next Congress they soon gained the support of another Massachusetts congressman, Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), who agreed to sponsor the bill in the House. Then, on a trip to Washington, D.C., Michael and Daniel dropped in on Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). The brothers so impressed the two lawmakers that they agreed to co-sponsor the legislation in the Senate.

This time around, in order to increase its chances of passing in the Senate, the Veterans Day Moment of Silence Act was packaged both as a stand-alone bill and as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill passed in the House as part of the Defense bill, but with time running out in the session, the Senate declined to consider any amendments. As that Congress came to a close, the whole process—gathering sponsors, reintroducing the bills, etc.—would need to start again.

A political cartoonist might depict them battered and bruised at the foot of the Capitol steps, but “the Bendetsons have been dogged, energetic, committed and constant,” says Brian Smith, a lobbyist who has worked with the family pro bono—one of many people who have been instrumental in moving the project forward, the family insists.

“We’ve had nothing but support from across the political spectrum,” says Michael. “There’s so much partisan wrangling that people really want to unify around the recognition of veterans, but even for something so popular, the machinations have been really frustrating. Our founders designed it to be a slow and tedious process, but at times things seem to move way too slowly.”

Earlier this year, with a new session of Congress in place and broad bipartisan support—the bill was reintroduced by a dozen representatives and six senators from both sides of the aisle—things looked promising. The bill passed the House twice, as an amendment to two different bills, including this year’s Defense authorization. As of this writing, the Bendetsons are still encouraging the Senate to act on these bills.

The family insists that their five-year saga has been worth it. “As everyone grows older, families can separate, but this project really brought us closer together,” says Peter, who often accompanied Daniel and Michael on their trips to Washington. “We all brought different strengths and perspectives, and that ended up being a very effective strategy in all the meetings we attended.”

The Bendetson family encourages anyone who wants to join their effort to honor the nation’s veterans to call their federal legislators and urge them to support the bills H.R. 1735, H.R. 675, and S. 1004.

To the brothers, it’s been a civics lesson no textbook could ever give them. “I’ve talked to so many vets during this process,” says Michael. “They have reminded me how special this country is, and part of what makes it so special is that any individual can effect change.”

Kara Peters is a freelance writer and editor in Georgetown, Massachusetts.


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