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Promises Made, Promises Kept


J. D. Pendry


"In order to make sure the morale is high with those who wear the uniform today, we must keep our commitment to those who wore the uniform in the past. We will make sure promises made to our veterans will be promises kept." President George W. Bush, 2001


In September 1971, I enlisted into the United States Army.  From the beginning, I learned that an honorable tour of service earned entitlements to benefits from the Veteran’s Benefits Administration.  Our leaders stressed this to us often, especially in the early years.  “If you get a bad discharge, you’ll lose your VA benefits.” 


I never intended to make a career of the Army, but it happened.  I knew at the time of my decision, that staying 20 years would guarantee a retirement pension benefit equal to half of my base pay.  A promise made.  I also expected lifetime health care, something we finally have a version of following a long fight to get it.


I stayed in the Army for 28 years earning a pension equal to 70 percent of my base pay at the time of retirement.  That might sound overly generous to some, but the Army doesn’t pay top dollar to enlisted soldiers.  Seventy percent of not very much to start with is not very much in the end.  The bottom line is that it’s not enough to live on.  Any enlisted person retiring from the military must work, if able to, in order to care for his or her family and maintain an acceptable standard of living.


No matter what a soldier is or does, he or she trains everyday.  If not engaged in military action against hostile forces, they train for that eventuality.  A significant part of any soldier’s day is physically demanding.  Running many miles on pavement, walking many miles bearing heavy loads, repetitive strength building exercises, conditioning obstacle courses, hand-to-hand combat training… etc.  There is no off-season for soldiers; training never stops.  A soldier in the U.S. Army must be able to pass a strenuous physical fitness test on demand and comply with weight and body fat standards.  It may be a test administered in the peaceful setting of an Army base, or it may be the ultimate test in combat.  On today’s battlefield, the combat supporters must be as ready to engage the enemy as are the combat arms.  Ask Jessica Lynch and comrades.


It doesn’t matter if a soldier’s tour of service is 3 years or 30; the physical demands and requirements apply right up until the day he or she leaves the service.  Playing with pain is as common to soldiers, especially career soldiers, as is the huge amounts of Motrin passed out to them at Army medical clinics to treat the nagging overuse injuries to their knees, backs, shoulders… body parts one needs in daily functioning.  Still they do it.  Career soldiers do it because they are dedicated to their profession and dedicated to providing young soldiers with the leadership and role model needed to help them preserve the world’s best fighting force defending the world’s most free society.  During a soldier’s tour of service, plenty of opportunities arise for them to suffer debilitating injuries that do not include combat operations.


When soldiers leave the service, young and old, they’re advised to file for a Veteran’s Benefits Administration (VBA) disability evaluation.  Many do, some do not.  Soldiers are told that if rated with a compensable disability by the VBA, they’ll be paid monetary benefits and receive free medical treatment for it.  Another promise made.


The VBA compensates, monetarily, any soldier who serves honorably, applies for the benefit and is found by them to have a service-incurred disability rated at least 10 percent disabling on a scale from 10 to 100 percent.  To say that a veteran is 10 percent disabled is to say that he can function physically or possibly mentally at only 90 percent of what a person with no disabilities can function.  The purpose of the compensation is to make up for that loss in physical or mental ability caused by a veteran’s service.  The soldier’s length of service is not a factor in the VBA’s decision process.


Most accept that a retirement pension is different from disability compensation.  One is for long service; the other’s purpose is to compensate one for disabilities with the intent to make up for lost earning power.


While looking at promises made and promises kept, consider that our country promises all veterans a retirement pension following 20 years of honorable service.  Our country also promises all veterans that honorably serve even at least one term of service compensation (both promises made by law) for any service-incurred disabilities.  Has our country kept its promises to all its veterans in this regard?  The unfortunate answer to the question is no.  Those who defended their country for 20 years or more have their earned retirement pension taxed at the 100 percent rate for any disability compensation received from the VBA.  Under the provisions of a law enacted in 1891, earned retirement pensions are reduced dollar for dollar for any VBA disability compensation received.  Promise broken.


It’s difficult for a veteran of 20 or more years to understand and accept how his neighbor, who served three years in service, gets as much in compensation as he does while his neighbor also collects his full government retirement pension from the US Postal Service or some other federal civil service job.  Not only that, but during the entire time he worked his civil service job – 25 to 30 years – he received monthly disability compensation payments.  Something his military retired counterpart didn’t get because he was still serving.


This issue has been before Congress for many years so it’s not possible to pin failure to correct it on one political party.  Many retired and disabled veterans are upset with the current administration because of the feeling that a promise was made and not kept to correct this antiquated injustice and vow to vote accordingly in the 2004 national elections.  My vote is quite valuable to me and having spent 12 of my years of service under Democrats and experiencing the wholesale gutting of the services that took place during their time, I’m not too sure, especially in our current state, that I’m ready to pass them my vote.  After all, their interest in this issue has only surfaced recently when they sensed a political opportunity.


Last year, Congress attempted to reduce the loss endured by military retirees through Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC).  CRSC returns retired pay to anyone with a least 20 years service and a 10 percent or higher disability related to award of the Purple Heart or anyone with at least 60 percent disability attributed to combat or combat related training.  There are some fallacies with this program.  First, there are significant amounts of combat related disabilities that are not attributable to award of the Purple Heart and are rated at less than 60 percent disabling.  Some examples are Agent Orange related diabetes mellitus, type 2, post traumatic stress disorder and undiagnosed illnesses due to Gulf War Syndrome.  If one does not have a Purple Heart award, he or she must be able to point to the specific event in his or her service related to combat or combat training that produced the service-connected disability.  Overuse injuries, which are many, often do not have a specific start and therefore will never make it under the criteria.  Finally, maybe 35,000 of the 700,000 disabled retirees will ever see any benefit from this program as it stands today.  The cost to the services to administer CRSC is probably higher than paying it would be.


There is much discussion now about concurrent receipt of military retired pay and VBA disability compensation, also referred to as the Disabled Veteran’s Tax (DVT).  There is always much discussion about it this time of year, as the need for completion of the National Defense Authorization Act nears.  Last year, after tossing out a bone in the form of CRSC Congress forgot briefly the DVT only to be reminded of it through a relentless campaign of email and letter writing from the veterans who were left out by CRSC.  There are more rumors out there now on what might come of the negotiations with the Republican leadership than is easily sorted out.  What one can surmise is that the politicians on both sides realize the importance of the issue and the potential to losing a significant amount of votes for failing to resolve it.  For that reason, most anticipate some improvement this year to the current system.


The most persistent rumor is that CRSC may expand to include those with at least a 30 percent combat or combat training related disability and to those who receive the 100 percent payment rate due to their being unemployable.  The second part of that rumor is that the most severely disabled, those rated at least 50 percent disabled for any reason, will start to receive some of their pay back in January 2004, with the remainder being phased in over 5 – 7 years.  Most retirees are ready to accept this beginning as a better than nothing deal, even though it still comes up way short of resolving the problem.  Although the rumored plan will give money back to the most severely disabled, it leaves out the largest portion of retired veterans, which are those rated between 10 and 40 percent disabled.


If there is some resolution, I have to believe that it is a political expedient rather than a sincere effort to resolve a longstanding injustice.  I also believe that both political parties will stand up to take credit for any positive move.  Unfortunately (for the veterans), anything short of a total repeal of the law is a lose lose for the Republican Party.  Secretary Rumsfeld is already on record as being against any relief and recommending the President veto legislation granting it.  The Democrats, of course, will continue attempts at class warfare by pointing to the “tax cuts for the rich” and to Iraq as reasons for veterans not getting what they deserve, which is total repeal of the law.


I suggest that none of you disabled retirees spend your money just yet because as a true voting block, we’ve never been much of a threat and the politicians know that.  You future retirees should start work on this issue now.  By the time you are out here, you may just have it resolved.


Copyright ©, JD Pendry, 2003, All Rights Reserved