I Was Wounded in Iraq. Vets Like Me Aren't Getting Our Full Retirement Pay and Congress Won't Act.

Disabled Veterans' Life Memorial in Washington.
In this Monday, July 21, 2014 photo, a man works on the letters for the Disabled Veterans' Life Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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The men and women who willingly put themselves in harm's way by serving in the military do so knowing that they may be severely wounded or even killed. They are all aware. There is a theme in the military that we take care of our own and that no one gets left behind. These are creeds that we live by. If someone falls in battle, you get them out.

This mindset is how we can muster up the courage, tighten our chin strap, and charge into combat knowing we might not come home. And yet, some 50,000 veterans who are medically retired from combat and have less than 20 years of service have been left behind by our country and forced to sacrifice yet again. This time, not in the sense of battle, but in the form of reduced monetary benefits.

Currently, service members who are medically retired with less than 20 years of service are forced to offset their retirement pay with their Department of Veterans Affairs pay. In most cases, VA disability compensation pay is higher than retirement pay, especially if the service member is a lower enlisted rank. This causes a large percentage of combat-wounded veterans to sacrifice their retirement so they can collect their VA pay. The only way they can recoup some of this money is by applying for Combat Related Special Compensation, or CRSC, which allows them to apply a formula that gives them 2.5% of their retirement for each year they served if they have a combat-related VA rating. Only veterans who have 20 years in service and a disability rating of 50% or higher can collect both, known as Concurrent Military Retired Pay.

There are a few issues with the current compensation structure. First and foremost, it is unfair to penalize veterans who were unable to make it to 20 years because of combat. Combat does not care if you are a seasoned 20-year master sergeant or a green first-year private. If your time is up, your time is up. Most combat wounds stemming from America's recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the bulk of service members were wounded, result in terminating their military service because they are unable to continue serving due to injury. So instead, they are retired, either temporarily or permanently.

Similarly, those veterans end up with significant VA ratings for their wounds and injuries, and many of them would likely exceed the 50% disability threshold. If they had made it to 20 years like their buddies, they'd be eligible for both forms of compensation.

Lawmakers are working to remedy this travesty that our combat-wounded face. Both the Senate and Congress have introduced bills under the Major Richard Star Act, which if passed will allow combat retired veterans with less than 20 years to collect both types of compensation. Each bill is supported by overwhelming co-sponsorship, with 326 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 70 in the Senate. However, both bills have hit a roadblock because lawmakers must find the estimated $10 billion it would cost to fund the retirement pay for combat-retired veterans for 10 years. In contrast, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars cost $2 trillion. It is unconscionable to say that we as a country can afford to waste trillions in fighting what some Americans would call pointless wars, but we can't find $10 billion to take care of those who were wounded while fighting the wars they volunteered to fight, especially when it would cost less than $1 billion a year to do so.

Major veteran service organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled American Veterans and countless others advocate for the passing of the Major Richard Star Act. Politicians have issued press releases to voice their support of the legislation. Numerous veterans' social media groups, like Major Richard Star Act on Facebook, have thousands of followers, veterans and advocates alike, all trying to petition their government to change the law through phone calls, emails and joint efforts like video calls and coordinated posts. Yet, sadly, some of the veterans who would benefit from the passing of this law voice dismay and feel that their service isn't worth enough for lawmakers to do the right thing. Despite those feelings, they show grit and push on and try to the best of their ability to enact change, much like the grit they showed in combat.

These heroes should have been collecting their earned benefits from the first day they were retired from combat. Each month law lawmakers delay in passing the Major Star Act forces our nation's heroes to sacrifice earned benefits. Some of these heroes have been medically retired for decades, and they have already sacrificed beyond what should be expected of them. Congress and the Senate must act immediately because America should always take care of its veterans. Because taking care of its veterans is what America does.

-- Emil Hirsch is a retired Army sergeant who was medically retired after being wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006. He served with the 327th Signal Battalion, 35th Signal Brigade (Airborne), in Afghanistan, and the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq.

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