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World War II veteran pushes for Merchant Marine inclusion in Lancaster County honor park

WARWICK TOWNSHIP, LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. --- William Balabanow, 92, joined the U.S. Merchant Marines in 1944 during World War Two.

His service included transporting military equipment and other resources to both theaters of the war, going to places such as France and Japan.

He describes the role of the merchant marines as "truck drivers" of the seas.

“We carry cargo from one port to another port, whereas a truck goes from city to city," said Balabanow.

Research shows merchant marines suffered the highest rate of casualties of any service during World War Two.

When Balabanow received a pamphlet stating the merchant marines would be honored at the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County, he said he got on board.

However, he received a new pamphlet earlier this year.

The new pamphlet did not include the merchant marines.

David Kramer, chairman of the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County, said that merchant marines are not considered veterans of the armed forces by federal regulation standards through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Balabanow says several revisions to the G.I. Bill Improvement Act state that U.S. Merchant Marines who served "in active oceangoing service" during World War Two earned Veteran Status.

"The law says we are," said Blabanow.

Kramer says those same revision apply to 33 other civilian war

time groups, which the U.S. Merchant Marines are considered, and they cannot honor one without recognition of them all.

He also said they "offered local Merchant Marine representatives an opportunity to have a permanent bronze plaque installed in a prominent location on the Honor Wall of the Park, asking only that they pay for the plaque based on an approved estimate. This offer was rejected out-of-hand and deemed "unacceptable.""

Balabanow says they declined it because it was not an equal representation among the other branches included in the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County, which is the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.

He said he wants to see a memorial for World War Two merchant marines of similar size or stature to the other branches in the park.

“If you let them cut you off, you’re not going to get half of what you deserve," said Balabanow.

Here is the full statement David Kramer, chairman of the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County:

"The charter of the Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County is to honor the service of veterans of the United States Armed Forces as defined by federal regulation...The Merchant Marine was and remains a civilian organization. While a certain number of WWII Mariners meeting strict criteria have been accorded veterans benefits, and we thank them for their service, it is inaccurate to universally identify former members of the Merchant Marine as veterans. The Merchant Marine is one of many civilian organizations accorded selective veteran status. Depending upon where one researches, one can find similar veteran status extended to from 19 to 39 other wartime civilian groups from WWI to Vietnam. The Congressional Research Services report on the veteran status of Merchant Marines notes 33 such civilian groups. It is this same documented rationale that has led the VFW to exclude completely the Merchant Marine from eligibility and the American Legion to extend membership solely to WWII Merchant Mariners who served at sea. Nonetheless, in recognition of the service of WWII Lancaster County Merchant Mariners, on July 17, 2018 we offered local Merchant Marine representatives an opportunity to have a permanent bronze plaque installed in a prominent location on the Honor Wall of the Park, asking only that they pay for the plaque based on an approved estimate. This offer was rejected out-of-hand and deemed "unacceptable."...The offer remains open."

The Veterans Honor Park of Lancaster County is scheduled to break ground on Wednesday, November 7 at 3:30 p.m. in front of the Lititz Public Library.