has been breaking news for and about military
people since 1977. After service in the Coast
Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior
editor with Army Times Publishing Company,
Tom launched "Military Update,"
his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994.
"Military Update" features timely
news and analysis on issues affecting active
duty members, reservists, retirees and their
families. Tom also edits a reader reaction
column, "Military Forum." The online
"home" for both features is Military.com.
Tomís freelance articles have appeared in
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Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied,
on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of
Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held
prisoner of war in American history, is available
in hardcover and paperback.
A commission conducting the first major review of veterans' disability benefits in 50 years was warned at its inaugural meeting that perhaps too many veterans have been deemed "unemployable," which raises their compensation to the level of 100-percent disabled veterans.
Renee L. Szybala, director for operations of VA's Compensation and Pension Service, told the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission May 9 that the number of vets designated "IU," for Individual Unemployability, has doubled in the last six years.
Part of that growth is blamed on the VA's decision in 1999 to stop requiring IU veterans to complete a form each year verifying that they remain unemployed, said Stephen Simmons, Szybala's deputy.
"We re-instituting that," he said, citing recent "findings" that dropping the form requirement was a bad idea. The 214,000 veterans designated IU now are simply sent annual reminders that their compensation level is based on a determination that they can't work.
Szybala noted other difficulties with IU.
"There's a question of whether people are giving [it] too easily," she said, referring to VA claims adjudicators. "It's a safety valve and when you need to get cases off your desk quickly, if people meet the criteria, just give it to them," she said, describing the potential for abuse.
Also, though IU is tied to an inability to work, the higher payments continue into old age when most Americans have stopped working anyway.
Commissioner Donald M. Cassiday, a retired Air Force colonel and bomber pilot, asked Szybala if a veteran age 90 could draw disability pay at the 100-percent level. In fact, she said, a veteran theoretically can apply for IU benefits at age 90, arguing that his disabilities make him unable to work.
In its first two-day meeting, the commission also took testimony from defense officials, congressional auditors, veterans' service groups and military associations. Group representatives defended current levels of payments. Some expressed concern over how the commission came to be.
House Republican leaders mandated the commission as a condition for relaxing the ban on concurrent receipt of military retirement and VA disability compensation. The 13-member panel to review of VA payments was a compromise position for Republicans after they angered vet groups with a plan to tighten disability payments of future veterans by recognizing only injuries or illnesses resulting from "performance of duty."
Under current law, any permanent injury or illness is service-connected and compensable if traced to time in service. Szybala cited as an example an off-duty service member injured roller-skating with his girlfriend.
"Disability need not be caused by military service ... and that's probably one of the things the commission will be grappling with," she said.
Commission chairman, retired Lt. Gen. James T. Scott, former head of the Army Special Operations Command, said "paranoia" among some veterans over what the commission will recommend is unfounded.
Growth in the number of veterans rated unemployable drew a round of questions from commissioners, however. VA statistics show that about half of 460,000 veterans with disability ratings of 60 to 90 percent are now deemed unemployable and paid as if 100-percent disabled. Last year, the IU status added $4 billion to overall disability payments, Szybala said.
The designation brings a sharp boost in pay. A 60-percent disabled veteran with no dependents given IU status draws monthly compensation of $2299 instead of $839. The difference is $1660 or almost $20,000 a year. For a 90-percent veteran with a spouse and a child, an IU rating means $2523 a month instead of $1581, or an added $11,300 annually.
Veterans can be considered for IU if they have one disability of at least 60 percent or two disabilities with a combined rating of at least 70 percent. One of every four veterans with a 60-percent disability is now IU and paid at the 100-percent level. Likewise half of all 70-percent disabled veterans, two thirds of all 80-percent disabled veterans and three-quarters of 90-percent disabled veterans are considered unemployable.
Szybala agreed with Commissioner Dennis V. McGinn, a retired Navy vice admiral, that IU is one of the "more controversial" features of the VA disability system. She also criticized as "shameless" the complexity of recent laws to ease the ban on concurrent receipt of military retirement and VA disability pay. While Congress has restored lost retired pay for combat-related disabilities, and has ordered phase out of pay reductions for retirees with serious non-combat-related ailments, the mishmash of laws also has left too many retirees confused or victims of payment errors, Szybala said.
Commissioner John H. Grady, an accountant from Texas who has served as an advisor to military's retirement fund account, said the commission should review the "guiding principle" behind concurrent receipt, given that there are "people who feel strongly for it and against it."
Commissioner Rick Surratt, deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said the basis for concurrent receipt is that the two payments "are for different things" and one shouldn't reduce another. Retired pay is for service of 20 or more years; disability pay reimburses the veteran for loss of future earnings from service-connected impairments.
The recent laws are so complex, Surratt added, because they were shaped by "political decisions, not rationale decisions ... Congress was working so hard not to do the right thing."