The proposal to limit eligibility for veterans’ compensation benefits


by Richard F. Weidman

Mr. Chairman and other distinguished members of the Committee, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is pleased to have this opportunity to present our viewpoint on the proposals to limit eligibility for veterans’ compensation benefits to disabilities directly related to “performance of duty” (as narrowly defined) injuries only. We cannot emphasize this strongly enough: VVA is adamantly opposed to the proposed language in Section 652 of H.R. 1588, “The FY04 Defense Authorization Act.” The proposed language would revise titles 10 and 38 of the United States Code to restrict veterans’ eligibility to receive Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) service-connected disability compensation based upon disease or injury sustained while serving on active duty in the military. Specifically, the proposal would limit payment of compensation to disabilities that are the “direct result of the performance of duty.” The effect of this language would have enormous consequences for current and future members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families, and flies in the face of our Nation’s stated objective of “supporting our troops.” There is simply no other way to say it: This is an unprecedented and unconscionable breach of America’s covenant to care for those who have borne the battle. Currently and historically, our government provides for the security and well-being of those who defend our country, those who risk life and limb, by affording them with health care and disability compensation when they are physically and/or emotionally diminished as the result of their active military service. Decades of experience have taught us that disease or injury incurred as a direct result of service may not manifest for years after the serviceperson’s separation from active duty. Witness the devastating effects of environmental exposures (such as toxic gas, radiation and herbicidal agents), as well as the mandatory administration of pharmaceuticals (such as the anthrax vaccine and pyridostigmine bromide). Delayed onset of disabilities directly incurred as a consequence of military service is responsible for thousands of inappropriately denied claims for disability compensation, even under current law. Under the proposed standard of “direct result of official military duties,” it will likely prove impossible for tens of thousands of deserving veterans to be made whole (or as close to whole as one can ever be made). Should the proposed language become law, service personnel would further lose the military equivalent of a workers’ compensation program. The current service- connection standard also protects those individuals who become ill or are injured during active service (except in cases of willful misconduct), regardless of whether such illness or injury is the proximate result of the performance of their official duties or under a superior’s lawful direct order. Congress adopted this standard for a reason. Pursuant to the Feres doctrine, military personnel have absolutely no recourse to the judicial system for essentially anything that happens to them in the military. As an illustration, under the proposed standard, if a soldier is tasked to build a brick wall as part his or her occupational duties and the wall collapses and crushes that soldier’s leg, that individual would be eligible for VA health care for any resulting disability, and will be able to receive service-connected compensation upon separation from active duty. Now, suppose that same soldier, who is presumed to be on duty 24 hours a day, is walking along a base sidewalk and that same wall falls and injures that same leg, that troop will be eligible for neither post-service health care or disability compensation. Or consider sexual trauma. In 1992, Senator Specter presided over the historic hearings that led to the treatment, care, and benefits for sexual trauma victims. Women veterans who have been victimized by sexual trauma, assault, and abuse may have no one they feel they can confide in while on active duty. Years after their discharge, many still find it difficult to come forward to deal with the results of this trauma. Under this proposed legislation, sexual trauma would no longer be considered a line of duty disability. This is patently unjust and will send a clear and resounding signal to our troops and the American public that our government is, at best, indifferent and uncaring when it comes to the support of our troops. How anyone can claim to “Support Our Troops!” and advance such a proposal is beyond our comprehension.Moreover, given the demonstrated history of the VA to interpret statutes and regulations in a light most detrimental to the veteran, the potential for abuse of the proposed standard is staggering. One can easily envision wave upon wave of denied claims for survivors’ benefits predicated upon findings that although there might be a concrete etiological relationship between a veteran’s service-connected disability and a secondary condition that caused his or her death (think post-traumatic stress disorder and cardiovascular disease, respectively), the VA will likely conclude that the secondary condition was not caused by the “direct performance of official military duties.” Hence, the families of these veterans suffer their own injuries at the hands of their own government.It is no less important to note that the proposed language does not affect a basic tenet of VA law. Access to VA health care, often the only medical services available to a veteran, is generally predicated upon service-connected disability. Further, once enrolled in the VA health-care system, the availability of such care is determined by how severe such service-connected disability is rated. By limiting eligibility for service-connection, Congress is essentially condemning veterans who will be robbed of the eligibility that they are currently legally, and forever morally, entitled to when it comes to often life- saving medical care. Congress cannot permit this to happen. With a new generation of men and women doing battle on the front lines of freedom, it is abhorrent to abandon them now. They will join their forebears of America’s wars prior to World War II who have been shamefully treated by those whom they are sworn to protect and defend. Passage of the proposed legislation will only resurrect and perpetuate this sorry legacy, which will be recalled by those who are asked to serve in the future. This country cannot afford to abrogate its solemn obligation to protect our troops.Vietnam Veterans of America thanks this committee for the opportunity to present our views on this important matter and will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

About the Author

Richard F. Weidman is a writer for The VVA Veteran, the official voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ® An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. Learn more at http://www.vva.org

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