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Shameful legacy: we have been fighting a long, hard battle to finally eliminate the offset of military retirement pay and VA disability compensation. We've come a long way toward achieving that goal.

When Congress passed legislation a few years ago creating the Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) program, it brought a measure of justice to many of our comrades. CRSC allows qualified military retirees with 20 or more years of service who have a "combat-related" disability to receive their full military retirement pay without having it reduced by the amount of their VA disability compensation.

Congress took another step in the right direction when it passed the 2008 Defense authorization bill with a provision that said veterans with combat-related disabilities no longer must pay back any disability severance they receive from the Defense Department before they can receive disability compensation from the VA, as has been the case under longstanding policy.

But with wartime casualties mounting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department has intentionally withheld benefits from thousands of brave men and women who have been wounded, injured and disabled in the line of duty. And that is a deliberate, systematic betrayal of every brave American who has worn our nation's uniform and stood on the ramparts of freedom.

Why would the Defense Department do such a thing? Is it to provide an "enhanced benefit" to "those affected directly by combat operations" and those participating in "armed conflict" as Pentagon officials told us? Or is it a way to cut costs by denying benefits to other wartime disabled veterans?

When the CRSC law was passed, "combat-related" was 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 parachuting out of airplanes. The 2008 severance pay waiver provision applies to veterans whose disability was "incurred in the line of duty in a combat zone or incurred during performance of duty in combat-related operations as designated by the Secretary of Defense."

But the Pentagon's personnel chief issued a directive limiting the new severance pay waiver only to those injured in a combat zone in the line of duty or as a direct result of armed conflict. This is a much narrower definition of "combat-related" than the one Congress included in the law. In our view, the Defense Department lacks the authority to arbitrarily exclude disabilities resulting from hazardous service, duty under conditions simulating war and disabilities incurred through an instrumentality of war unless the servicemember was in a combat zone or engaged in armed conflict.

But aside from improperly undercutting congressional authority, the Defense Department's policy is a gross injustice to many severely disabled veterans. One example is Marine Cpl. James Dixon who suffered a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device during his third tour in Iraq. The military initially ruled his injuries were "not combat related."

In another case, Army Sgt. Richard Manoukian completed two combat tours, was exposed to numerous combat events and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems following a suicide

attempt. He also suffered a cervical spine disability following a hard helicopter landing in Kuwait during protection duty. Under the CRSC law's definition of "combat-related," flight duty is considered "hazardous service," and helicopters are an "instrumentality of war." Yet, the military disregarded the PTSD and said Manoukian's other disabilities were "not combat related."

And then there is the case of a female soldier who suffered severe injuries in Iraq while diving for cover during an enemy mortar attack. She underwent major joint replacement surgery, and doctors had to fuse four spinal vertebrae because of her injuries. But, again, the military ruled her disabilities were "not combat related."

If injuries like these are ruled not combat-related, I can only imagine how many other wartime disabled veterans are going without the benefits Congress mandated our government provide. The unfortunate truth is that most of those servicemembers have no representation in the military disability evaluation system and are likely unaware of the benefits they are being denied by this disgraceful Pentagon policy directive.

The Defense Department leadership has an obligation to follow the law, not make it up as they go along in order to balance the bottom line. We have strongly urged Congress to use its full oversight authority to determine exactly how many servicemembers have been adjudicated as unfit for service because of noncombat-related disabilities. Furthermore, those disabilities should then be readjudicated under the correct standard of law with oversight provided by an independent body.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exacted a terrible price from our brave men and women. And what will be the legacy of their service and sacrifice? Let it not be that their leaders turned against them in their greatest hour of need. Nothing could be more shameful.
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Title Annotation:from the NATIONAL ADJUTANT
Author:Wilson, Arthur H.
Publication:DAV Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2008
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