John Paluska.

Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa is pushing to ensure a current benefit for military veterans and the families of soldiers who died while on duty is a permanent policy.

The National Park Service issues free park passes to veterans and Gold Star families and Miller-Meeks is sponsoring a bill to make that policy law, to ensure it’s never revoked.

“The VIP Act protects these veterans’ passes by codifying them into law and making them lifetime passes instead of annual passes that have to be resent and reapplied for every year,” Miller-Meeks said. “Making the passes lifetime instead of annual makes the job of Park Service easier and ensures our veterans have full access to all the benefits they deserve.”

Passes into the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, for example, cost $15 per person and $30 per vehicle. Miller-Meeks is getting bipartisan support for her bill. More than 140 House members had signed on as co-sponsors.

“As a 24-year Army veteran, I understand the sacrifices made by our military and their loved ones…and as a doctor, I understand the healing power of nature and outdoor activity,” Miller-Meeks said. “with mental and physical benefits.”

Miller-Meeks outlined her bill Tuesday during a hearing held by the U.S. House committee that oversees policy on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Ottumwa native John Paluska, a retired Army Captain, also testified.

“There’s something about connecting to nature that all these parks have that helps with the healing,” he said.

Paluska, who is a Green Beret, said he visited Yellowstone National Park after each of his deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ll always carry the wounds of war with me wherever I go,” he said, “but when I go to these beautiful places I am able to connect with one of the reasons I decided to serve and that is this incredible, beautiful country, so I feel a connection to this country when I visit these national parks.”

Paluska was injured in a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006 and Staff Sergeant Travis Strong, the soldier at his side, lost both legs.

“Now Travis finds his strength in challenging himself physically at a national parks,” Paluska said. “He’s summited various peaks throughout the US with only his hands and, for him, his park is Yosemite.”

There are more than 2000 national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges and Paluska said he looks forward to showing his newborn son Yellowstone and many others in the coming years. The bill Miller-Meeks is sponsoring would let active service members, who get annual free passes to the national parks, turn that in for a lifetime pass when they retire or are honorably discharged.