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Pentagon narrows combat-related definition.

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The Department of Defense (DoD) has adopted a policy that severely limits the number of injured and disabled servicemembers who would not have to repay their military disability severance pay before they could receive disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The policy results from a DoD memorandum that redefines which injuries qualify as "combat-related." The memorandum authored by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S.C. Chu affects servicemembers who receive a disability rating of 20 percent or less from the Defense Department, and thus receive a severance payment rather than lifetime disability retirement pay.

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Under Secretary Chu, apparently disregarding the broader intent of Congress, has limited the definition of "combat-related" disability to exclude disability resulting from hazardous ser vice, duty under conditions simulating war or disability incurred through an instrumentality of war incurred outside of a combat zone.

"In effect, Under Secretary Chu's definition runs contrary to the eligibility rules covering Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC), making thousands of disabled veterans ineligible under the DoD definition," said Washington Headquarters Executive Director David W. Gorman. "In effect, Under Secretary Chu eviscerates Congress' intent for disabilities determined to be combat-related."

Last March, Chu issued a memorandum that narrowly defined combat-related disability as "a disease or injury incurred in the line of duty as a direct result of armed conflict."

"The fact that a member may have incurred a disability during a period of war, or in an area of armed conflict, or while participating in combat operations is not sufficient" to support combat-related disability, according to Chu's memo.

Contrary to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act, in which Congress defined disability as combat-related if it resulted from service in a combat zone or performance of duty in combat-related operations, Chu argued that the DoD "endorsed the premise that the benefit for those hurt in combat should be more robust than for members with disabilities incurred in other situations (e.g. simulation of war, instrumentality of war or participation in hazards not related to combat)."

Army veteran Lori Meshell is one veteran who suffers the impact of DoD's more restrictive definition. In Iraq, during one of the near-daily mortar attacks on her forward operating base near Balad she was injured, shattering her hip and injuring her back on rocks as she jumped for safety.

"I was getting ready to go out on local patrol, and I had all my gear on," Meshell said. "The attack alarms went off, and a shell was coming in. I dove on a bunch of rocks with all my gear. I shattered my hip, and it had to be replaced.

"My bones weren't where they were supposed to be, and those they didn't replace were realigned," she said. Today, she is in chronic pain and suffers from arthritis. Walking with a limp, she was active in surfing, hiking and other athletic activities before her deployment and subsequent injury in Iraq. "Since I have been back from Iraq, my joints are just disintegrating," Meshell said.

Despite the nature of her injuries, the Army used the narrow definition to deny that her injures were combat related.

Further, the DoD's narrow combat-related definition will affect the concurrent receipt of disability compensation and medical retirement pay. CRSC eligibility requires disability that is the direct result of armed conflict, training that simulates war, hazardous duty or instrumentality of war. But now retirees must first provide documentation that their disability is combat-related.

"The Defense Department appears to be washing its hands of disabled veterans at every opportunity," said Gorman. "The 2008 Defense Authorization Act requires documentation that shows a causal link between a current disability and a combat-related event.

"This is another example why we warned Congress against enacting piecemeal concurrent receipt for veterans," he said. "Had Congress enacted full and fair concurrent receipt of military retirement pay and VA disability compensation, we may not be having this debate today, and our veterans would be protected."

The eligibility requirements for CRSC are:

* Retirees must apply to their respective branch of service for approval,

* Retirees must be eligible to receive military retirement pay,

* Retirees must be eligible to receive VA disability compensation,

* Retirees must have an approved combat-related VA disability rating of 10 percent or more,

* Retirees from active-duty must have 20 years of active service,

* Temporary early retirees and medically disabled retirees are allowed to have less than 20 years of service, and

* Retired reservists must have 20 years of qualifying service.

Without the combat-related designation, VA disability compensation would be deducted from their military retirement pay, and the new generation of disabled veterans would have to repay any enhanced severance pay from the military to receive their VA disability compensation.

"It is obvious that Congress will have to inform Under Secretary Chu of its clear intent and to remove this narrow and limiting policy," said Gorman. "We have asked Congress to protect the rights and benefits they have provided to our nation's veterans. It would be shameful for this action to continue."
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Author:Wilborn, Thom
Publication:DAV Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2008
Words:838
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