RAO Davao City

United States Military Retiree Activities Office Davao City, Philippines

DOD VET BETRAYAL CLAIM September 14, 2008

Posted by Service Officer on September 14th, 2008

In a letter sent to members of Congress in early SEP, the directors of two major veterans’ groups say the Pentagon’s personnel chief has intentionally withheld benefits from wounded service members. “We need your immediate assistance to help end the Defense Department’s deliberate, systemic betrayal of every brave American who [dons] the uniform and stands in harm’s way,” states the letter, signed by David Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Sadly, the 2007 Walter Reed scandal, which resulted mostly from poor oversight and inadequate leadership, pales in comparison to what we view as the deliberate manipulation of the law” by David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and his deputies, the letter states.

Kerry Baker, legislative director for DAV, said Chu sent out a memorandum in March redefining which injuries qualify as “combat-related.” The definition is important because Section 1646 of the 2008 Defense Authorization Act said service members with combat-related disabilities no longer must pay back any disability retirement severance they receive from DoD before they become eligible for disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs, as has been the case under longstanding policy. The policy affects service members who receive a disability rating of 20% or less from the Defense Department, and thus receive a severance payment rather than lifetime disability retirement pay. Baker said he has seen cases in which, for example, a veteran receives a $30,000 severance payment from the Pentagon, uses it for medical care or education, and then, even if subsequently awarded a full 100% disability rating by VA, must pay the $30,000 back first before he can draw any VA compensation. Baker said this leaves many veterans who may not be able to work in a quagmire of debt. DAV and IAVA think no veteran should have to pay back money he or she earned before becoming eligible for VA benefits, but they still see the new law extending such waivers to veterans with combat-related disabilities as a step forward.

Under a separate program called Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC), which eliminates the offset in retired pay required of some retirees who also receive VA disability compensation, “combat related” is defined as any injury or illness incurred in a combat zone or performing tasks related to combat, such as training for deployment or hazardous assignments like jumping out of airplanes. But according to Chu’s memo, the definition of “combat related” for the purposes of the new severance pay waiver is limited only to those injured in a combat zone in the line of duty or as a direct result of armed conflict. In June, DoD spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told Military Times that Chu did not remake the definition to save money, as Baker has charged. She also noted that the law on repaying severance money left it to the secretary of defense to define “combat related.” But three lawmakers have told Military Times that their interpretation puts Baker in the right and Chu in the wrong — that they expected the Defense Department to adopt the existing definition used for the CRSC program. “The Department of Defense appears to be interpreting this law in the most narrow and tightfisted way possible,” said Rep. Timothy Walz (D-MN) a House Veterans Affairs Committee member. “I am disappointed that [the department] is implementing this policy in a way that makes as few veterans as possible eligible for the benefit.”

After Walz weighed in, DAV sent a letter to Chu asking for an explanation. William Carr, one of Chu’s senior deputies, responded in a letter dated 14 AUG by saying the intent “was to direct the enhanced benefit to those hurt in combat. Such an approach is consistent with our strong belief that there must be a special distinction for those who incur disabilities while participating in the risk of combat, in contrast with those injured otherwise,” Carr wrote. But Baker, and the authors of the new letter, continue to insist that congressional intent was not to make a special distinction that leaves out service members hurt in activities defined as “combat related” under other programs. “The law defines such disabilities as those caused by armed conflict, instrumentalities of war, hazardous service and conditions simulating war,” Gorman and Rieckhoff wrote. “The [Defense Authorization Act] did not change these definitions; in fact, it reinforced them, and it added disabilities incurred in the line of duty in a combat zone. The letter states that Chu “lacks the authority to change the will of Congress.” In an interview with Military Times, Baker laid out cases of veterans already affected by the new memo:

• A female soldier in her 30s, who asked that her name not be used, dove for cover into a pile of rocks in Iraq during a mortar attack wearing full battle rattle — Kevlar and body armor that can weigh 20 pounds. Afterwards, she suffered a fused spine and had to have her hips replaced, all of which her doctors said was directly attributable to her dive to safety. “The rating was good, but they said it was not combat-related,” Baker said. “You can see Chu’s memo confusing the issue. This is a disease process that began in Iraq in the line of duty.”

• In a second case, Marine Cpl. James Dixon incurred a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb on his third tour in Iraq. He has headaches, insomnia, short-term memory loss, hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Pentagon, “the disability did not result from a combat-related injury,” Baker said. Dixon’s ruling was changed on appeal, but Baker said there should have been no question to begin with about whether his injuries were combat-related.

• Army Sgt. Richard Manoukian served two combat tours, but when he was diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder after he tried to commit suicide — as well as suffering a spine disability after a hard helicopter landing in Kuwait — the Defense Department called his injuries “not combat related,” Baker said.

“The list of cases like this is reprehensible and growing every day,” Gorman and Rieckhoff wrote in their letter. “Moreover, if cases like these are ruled not combat-related, then one can only imagine how many other less obvious cases are suffering the same fate.” They asked Congress to look into how many cases have been ruled not combat-related under Chu’s memo and have them reviewed by a group independent of the Pentagon. “Congress should then take immediate action to ensure DoD upholds the plain and unambiguous language of the law,” they wrote. “Most of these service members have no representation in the military disability evaluation system and are therefore unaware of the benefits stolen from them — they are depending on you. [Source: AirForceTimes Kelly Kennedy article Posted 29Aug 08 ++]

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