Some disabled veterans are upset that their federal disability payments continue to be offset by dollar-for-dollar reductions in retirement pay even though in recent years Congress has moved to end that trade-off for many military retirees.
At issue is whether about 24,000 retired service members whose Department of Veterans Affairs doctors have declared them unable to work because of a disability -- and who served for at least 20 years -- should have to wait as long as 10 years to collect their full VA disability and military retirement benefits at the same time.
The fight over what is known as "concurrent receipt" has repeatedly cropped up on Capitol Hill. Veterans groups have successfully pushed Congress to slowly dismantle a system that dates to the 19th century and that as recently as two years ago prevented half a million veterans with disabilities from claiming their full disability and retirement benefits. The issue's importance is expected to grow as more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries that will affect them for a lifetime.
Backers of changing the system have argued that disability compensation and retirement pay address two different issues and that denying veterans the full benefit of both short-changes their service and sacrifice.
In 2003, lawmakers agreed to eliminate the offset over a 10-year period for about 200,000 veterans who have 50 percent or higher disability ratings from the VA and served for 20 years or more. Then last year, as part of the Defense Department authorization bill, Congress decided that the most severely injured among that group, those rated 100 percent disabled by the VA, should not have to wait. They began collecting their full disability and retirement pay in January 2005.
But another group of veterans with similar medical problems and years of service apparently was left out. The 24,000 or so members of this group have formal VA disability ratings as low as 60 percent, but their VA doctors say their service-related health problems render them unemployable. This group, known as "individual unemployable" (IU) retirees, must wait out the 10-year period before collecting their full compensation. Many veterans and advocacy groups say that is unfair.
"We worked hard thinking we would have our retirement after serving for 20 years only to find out that we would not be getting our retirement because we were disabled," said retired Lt. Col. Claude "Link" Braley, 54, who served 24 years in the Air Force and now suffers from degenerative hip and back problems. " . . . This may not be illegal, but it sure as heck is not fair."
Braley, of Orlando, said he would get an additional $1,400 a month if the offset were eliminated.
For many disabled veterans in similar circumstances, removing the offset requirement would mean an extra $1,950 a month, said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America.
Sympathetic lawmakers in the Senate and House have introduced legislation to provide such veterans the full benefit of their disability and retirement compensation without one reducing the other.
"We don't subject any other federal retiree to this kind of offset, only our disabled military retirees," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor last month, in support of legislation that would greatly expand the number of disabled veterans who are not subject to the offset. "So this policy amounts to a special tax on our disabled veterans."
Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), who for 18 years has worked to eliminate the offset requirements, has introduced similar legislation in the House. "We must send a signal to these brave men and women that our government takes care of those who make sacrifices for our Nation," Bilirakis said in a written statement.
Defense Department officials also have said they want to provide full compensation to the "unemployable" retirees. In December, Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, informed the Office of Management and Budget that, starting in January, the Pentagon intended to provide full military retirement pay to such veterans in addition to disability compensation. Abell wrote that doing so would cost about $1.3 billion over 10 years.
"Please advise us if the administration has any differing views," Abell said in his Dec. 21 letter to a top OMB official.
But the payments never began, and Pentagon officials say the Office of General Counsel is examining whether the law would permit them. No date has been set for concluding the legal review, said Maj. Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman.
Strobridge, of the officers' association, said OMB has told the Pentagon not to pursue the plan because of the cost at a time of rising federal budget deficits.
"Of course, it's all money," Strobridge said, adding that Defense officials "haven't said one way or the other what they are going to do."
An OMB spokeswoman declined to say what the OMB's response was to the Pentagon letter. "As with all agency-specific policy decisions, we support such decisions being made in a fiscally responsible manner," the spokeswoman said.
Retired Maj. Melvin Kloor, 63, a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the Navy for more than 20 years, said many disabled veterans cannot afford to wait for relief. Kloor, who has back, shoulder and knee problems that require surgery, pointed to VA statistics that more than 1,000 veterans are dying every day.