Holes in disability bill puzzle some vets

Former Army Capt. Hunter Smart of Phenix City, Ala., an injured veteran of the Iraq war, expected to find new severance pay protection in the Wounded Warrior Act Section of the new 2008 Defense Authorization Bill.

But when Smart took a close look this week he found a hole in the bill rather than an extra $35,000. Smart was pleased to read a few months ago that a provision in the bill would help medically-separated veterans. If their disability was incurred in a combat zone, or in combat-related operations, military disability severance pay no longer will have to be recouped by the government before the veteran begins to draw full disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With this change, Congress is embracing a recommendation of the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission. When veterans see their careers shortened by combat-related injuries, it said, they should get to keep both their lump-sum severance pay and full monthly VA disability pay.

But Smart was disappointed to learn this week that the new severance pay protection will apply only to combat-related medical separations after the bill is signed into law. That means VA compensation for Smart will be reduced over time by $35,000 in severance pay he received from the Army when he was separated as unfit last March.

“That this will not be retroactive is shameful,” he said. “It should go back to cover at least all of the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.”

Lawmakers couldn’t apply severance protection back to 2001, a congressional staffer explained, for the same reason that 600,000 reservists who have deployed since October 2001 are ineligible for early reserve retirement under another provision of the bill, a circumstance explained in last week’s Military Update column. The culprit is a “pay-as-you-go” budget rule that requires additional spending for entitlements to be covered by a bump in taxes or by cutting other entitlements, actions Congress wasn’t ready to take.

The defense policy bill now is HR 4986, renumbered after some modest changes in response to the president’s veto. The severance pay language is in a section titled the Wounded Warrior Act, which is loaded with new initiatives to help service members injured in war and their families.

It’s “the greatest reform in the law, relative to medical care for our troops, in more than a decade,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the armed services committee. It attacks, he said, substandard living conditions, poor outpatient care and bureaucratic roadblocks and delays. It improves dramatically management of medical care, disability evaluations and quality of life for members recovering from illnesses.

One provision in the bill still could help Smart and veterans who already have been separated as medically unfit. It requires the Defense Department, within 90 days, to establish a board to review military disability rating of 20 percent or less awarded since Sept. 11, 2001. The initiative reflects another concern raised by the disability benefits commission: that the services might have a cost motivate for holding down disability ratings. A rating of 30 percent or higher, after all, qualifies a member for disability retirement, which means an immediate annuity and lifetime access to Tricare, the military’s health benefit.

Smart, 26, led an infantry platoon in Iraq with 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Benning, Ga. In June 2005 he was in Bradley fighting vehicle traveling “full speed” when the Bradley broke one of its tracks. As vehicle commander, Smart was in the turret when the driver lost control. His back was injured in the accident.

His lower back hurt, but he soldiered on that day. Later, as the pain worsened, he sought treatment. He no longer could wear the heavy gear or carry the ammunition of an infantryman. He completed his year-long tour in Iraq behind a desk. Back at Benning, Smart said he was shocked when a disability evaluation board confirmed that he was unfit but gave him only a 0 percent rating. He considered an appeal.

Smart said he couldn’t find anyone to counsel him knowledgeably on his options. At the same time, he got an e-mail from his battalion commander, on Feb. 16, 2006, pressuring him to separate quickly.

“I decided to take my chances with the VA. Now I’m looking back and saying, ‘Man, I wish I would have nonconcurred, because of Tricare. I missed out on that,’” Smart said.

Smart and other medically-separated veterans who have suffered combat-related injuries since 2001 will get a second chance when the new Physical Disability Board of Review is up and running later this year.

E-mail milupdate@aol.com.

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