By Ronald F. Conley
“In matters of style swim with the current; in matters of principle stand like a rock,” Thomas Jefferson said.
White House bean counters and Pentagon political appointees are swimming in a century-long current of federal law that “soaks” military retirees who have service-connected disabilities. But the 2.8-million member American Legion, other advocacy groups and right-thinking members of Congress support the principle: A grateful nation owes just compensation to military retirees who incurred disabilities during a career of uniformed service to their nation.
Military retirees with service-connected disabilities continue to have their military retired pay reduced by the amount of disability compensation that they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Concurrent Receipt” legislation that would allow disabled military retirees to receive every penny they earned is in the hands of a House and Senate conference committee working on the Fiscal Year 2003 National Defense Authorization bill. While The American Legion fights hard for passage of this long-overdue legislation, the Office of Management and Budget urges the president to veto it. Further, Pentagon officials pit patriots past and present against each other, arguing that the quality of life and the warfighting capability of active-duty troops will suffer if service-connected military retirees receive the payments Uncle Sam owes them. Don’t they realize that many active-duty troops plan to retire from military service and would not support Uncle Sam robbing disabled military retirees?
The Pentagon’s spin cycle is in high gear. In a Sept. 25 “report” by the American Forces Press Service, DoD spuriously argues that paying a military retiree disability compensation and retired pay concurrently represents “double dipping,” two paychecks for the same service. That point is patently ridiculous. Retired pay is for longevity of service. Disability compensation is for bodily sacrifice suffered as a result of military service. Furthermore, DoD alludes to research that indicates Concurrent Receipt legislation would benefit an affluent population at the expense of improvements to quarters, hangars and the availability of spare parts for the weapons of war.
Allowing service-connected military retirees to receive concurrently their disability compensation and retired pay “is not good government,” says Assistant Defense Secretary Charles Abell in the report. Abell also suggests OMB underestimates the cost of Concurrent Receipt legislation: $58 billion over 10 years.
Principle is routinely a casualty of DoD’s legislative and public relations wars against service-connected military retirees, the only citizens who pay for their VA disability compensation.
Although it questions the cost of Concurrent Receipt legislation, the Defense Department’s spin does not address the fact that OMB’s estimate, $58 billion over 10 years, reflects hard-earned compensation that the nation takes from the pockets of hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans and their families. Frankly, I can imagine a price tag more staggering than OMB’s estimate: How many billions have been deducted from disabled retirees’ military retired pay over the years to save Uncle Sam the cost of their disability compensation? That figure would be absolutely disgraceful.
Further, for all of DoD’s deceptive drivel about “double dipping,” there is not a peep from the Pentagon about the discriminatory nature of existing law. If these veterans had left the military after they incurred their service-connected disabilities and subsequently retired from any other federal agency except a branch of the U.S. armed forces, they would receive both retired pay and disability compensation in full. Service-connected military retirees make a sacrifice that no other service-connected federal retirees make. That’s not right.
Pentagon political appointees and White House numbers crunchers are swimming with the current of unjust policy. On the other hand, standing like a rock in their support of a square deal for service-connected military retirees, are The American Legion, numerous other veterans organizations, and co-sponsors of bipartisan Concurrent Receipt legislation spearheaded by Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid and Florida’s Rep. Mike Bilirakis. I recommend these opposing sides bury the hatchet - bury it squarely into the obsolete language of a century-old law that steals from military retirees with service-connected disabilities.
Veterans who earned both retired pay and disability compensation should receive their full and just benefits; this is a principle is worth fighting for. The 107th Congress should make it so, ignoring civilian politicos who are unfamiliar with the law of the barracks: Take care of the troops and the troops will take care of you.
Ronald F. Conley is national commander of The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.