Disabled military vets hit the jackpot

Disabled military veterans on Whidbey Island joined their comrades nationwide Monday in celebrating a bittersweet victory.

On that day President Bush signed the Defense Authorization Bill, which included billions of dollars for “concurrent receipt” payments.

That means, in short, that some disabled military retirees can now draw federal disability pay along with their military retirement pay. Drawing both concurrently was banned in the late 1800’s and has been a big issue for veterans groups ever since. Disability pay was deducted from retirement pay on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

The victory for veterans was tempered by the fact the bill covers only those who are rated at 50 percent disabled or higher. Anyone rated at 49 percent or below is out of luck.

Early this week many disabled veterans were unclear about the provisions in the bill. “I’m on the fence,” said Andy Markley, and Oak Harbor Navy retiree rated 50 percent disabled. “Do I get it or don’t I?” When told that the bill seems to cover people like himself, he replied, “Until it shows up in your check, you don’t count on a thing.”

But many others were celebrating a monthly pay hike that will start at $750 for those 100 percent disabled, and increase from there over a 10 year period until full disability pay of approximately $2,100 a month is achieved.

”Not a bad pay raise,” said Max McYoung, who is 100 percent disabled due to a heart transplant. “I get back $750 a month. It amazed the hell out of me.” Retirees have been working for concurrent receipt for decades, and some found it hard to believe it had passed Congress after so many previous failures.

Dan McCutcheon, 100 percent disabled from his Vietnam days, was pleased that he will be receiving extra money beginning in February, but he was unhappy that full disability pay will take years to implement. He said he will lose $204,000 over the next 10 years because of the phase-in.

The bill that passed was a compromise measure opposed by Second District Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, who nevertheless supported the final Defense Authorization Bill.

In comments in Oak Harbor earlier this month, Larsen said the new concurrent receipt measure will help 885 veterans in his district. Covering all the disabled, even those at 49 percent or less, would have helped three times more retirees, he said.

“We’ve got two classes of vets,” he told a crowd at the Oak Harbor American Legion. “The haves and the have-nots.”

One of those “have-nots” is Mike Peterson, a Bremerton area resident who is 10 percent disabled due to bad knees and high blood pressure. “I was left out ion the cold,” he said. “It’s not right. We’re all in the same boat, you can’t treat one different than another.”

Peterson works with David Michel, an Oak Harbor resident who is commander of the local chapter of Disabled American Veterans. He lamented that many vets with disabilities won’t receive more pay, but he took a realistic view of the politics involved in the issue. “You can’t please everybody because it’s too costly,” he said. “But it’s been over 20 years coming.” He is 80 percent disabled and is likely to seen an extra $350 a month as concurrent receipt kicks in. The first checks will arrive in February according to a source recommended by Rep. Larsen’s office, the Military Officers Association of America.

Bob Barber, an Oak Harbor resident who runs the statewide transportation program for Disabled American Veterans, hopes that in future years concurrent receipt will be expanded to include all disabled retirees. “Our foot’s in the door,” he said. “We’ve got to help those guys who are below 50 percent.”

There is precedent for that. Veterans who acquired their disabilities in combat or combated-related action are now covered from 10 percent to 100 percent disability. That’s up from last year’s 60 percent to 100 percent.

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