Vets fight for benefits

Military veterans are being honored by their government this week, but not in the way many of them want.

Some 100 disabled veterans filled the Oak Harbor American Legion Hall Saturday afternoon — three days before Veterans Day — to hear Congressman Rick Larsen explain the latest efforts to treat disabled veterans more fairly.

Not that such efforts are anything new. Disabled veterans and their supporters have been trying to get what they consider a fair deal since 1891, when an act of Congress essentially deprived them of disability pay. Any money they receive for duty-related disabilities is automatically deducted from their retirement checks, resulting in what Rep. Larsen describes as a 100 percent tax rate on disability compensation.

“We fund our own disability,” said Navy retiree Andy Markley, who is 50 percent disabled. Speaking before Larsen arrived, Markley said the present government policy costs him $700 a month. The only benefit to drawing disability compensation is that is is not taxed, he said.

Dale Robertson said he’s losing $900 a month. He said military retirees should be treated at least as well as civil service retirees, who receive full medical and disability payments.

Robertson and the others in the crowd have pinned their hopes on House Resolution 303, known as the Retired Pay Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Larsen and 374 other representatives. Considering there are only 435 House members, the bill would seem likely to pass, but it’s been bottled up since June in the Subcommittee on Benefits.

To force the bill out of committee and to a vote of the full House takes a petition requiring the signature of 218 House members. Larsen said only 212 have signed.

Why no vote? Politics is to blame. President Bush does not support HR 303, and Republicans in control of the House won’t bring it to the floor for a vote. At least, that’s how disabled vet Dan McCutchen described the situation to the crowd.

“The president won’t be embarrassed by the Republican party,” McCutcheon said.

“What you have expressed is a fair representation,” Larsen replied.

Larsen said a compromise bill has been proposed by Republicans and included in the Defense Authorization Act, but he doe not support it. “It creates two classes of veterans — the haves and the have-nots, and it phases in over 10 years,” he told the vets. “You’re willing to die for your country and you get a third of a loaf.”

Larsen acknowledged that HR 303 would cost several billion dollars annually if enacted. “Sure it will cost money,” he said. “But surely we can find a way to fully fund concurrent receipt,” which is the term used to describe allowing full retiree and disability benefits. He suggested taking back some of the recent tax cuts for the wealthy.

Veterans were anxious to stand up and speak of their frustrations. “We’re fed up. We want it (HR 303), and we want it passed now,” said a 30-year Marine Corps veteran who didn’t give his name.

“It’s a travesty I have to pay for the disabilities I have,” said retired Navy man Gerald Pfannenstiel. “They happened in a combat zone.”

The veterans seems uniformly appreciative of Larsen’s efforts, aiming their criticism more at the system than individual elected officials.

“Keep up the good fight, please,” Larsen was told by Pfannenstiel. “Keep the fight up.”

What’s the problem?

Here’s the problem facing disabled veterans, as explained by Rep. Rick Larsen.

Under current law, veterans with 20 years of military service are entitled to receive retirement benefits from the Department of Defense. In addition, veterans who incurred service-related disabilities are entitled to receive disability compensation benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, if a veteran has both 20 years of military service and a service-related disability, the veteran’s military retirement benefit is reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the amount the veteran receives in disability compensation.

Rep. Larsen refers to this as the “disabled veterans tax . . . effectively, the disability compensation received by these veterans is taxed at a 100 percent rate.”

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