Pentagon limits law’s pledge to its wounded veterans

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Veterans groups hailed the passage last year of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which made it easier for wounded soldiers to have their injuries rated and treated by the federal government.

But less than a year after President Bush signed the bill, the Defense Department interpreted the law in a way that reduced its scope and denied many veterans the benefits they thought they had been promised.

The Pentagon’s interpretation, which veterans groups are challenging, is laid out in two memos written in 2008 by David S.C. Chu, who was undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The effect of the memos, which have been obtained by The Washington Times, is to disqualify numerous soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from receiving medical benefits and to prevent others from receiving extra pay that the NDAA promised to veterans with combat-related injuries.

In drafting the NDAA, Congress relied on the recommendations of a bipartisan panel headed by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.

The legislation permitted troops who were injured during training operations to receive extra pay, but Mr. Chu, in one of his memos, defined “combat-related operations” in such a way that troops injured during training or simulated conditions of war would not qualify.

Some lawmakers involved in enacting the 2008 law had expected differently. During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, said: “This addition expands the population that is eligible for the enhancement of disability severance pay to include injuries incurred during performance of duty in support of combat operations.”

But Congress did not explicitly include in the bill a definition of combat-related operations, leaving it to the Pentagon to make that determination. The result was Mr. Chu’s first memo, issued in March 2008.

Mr. Chu said that the injury must have been inflicted during “armed conflict,” or in a combat zone, in order for the service member to receive the benefits authorized.

“The fact that a member may have incurred a disability during a period of war or in an area of armed conflict, or while participating in combat operations is not sufficient to support this finding [of a combat-related disability]. There must be a definite causal relationship between the armed conflict and the resulting unfitting disability,” Mr. Chu wrote in a document attached to his March 2008 memo.

This excluded soldiers who were hurt while engaging in operations outside combat zones, including situations Mr. Pryor envisioned: conducting training exercises, jumping from helicopters in rough terrain or participating in other hazardous duties.

Officials maintain that the scope of the law was narrowed to ensure that combat-wounded soldiers would receive the bulk of the new benefits. Many veterans groups view it as an unwelcome cost-saving measure.

David Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, wrote a letter to every member of Congress in August 2008 that said: “Sadly, the 2007 Walter Reed scandal, which resulted mostly from poor oversight and inadequate leadership, pales in comparison to what we view as deliberate manipulation of the law” by Mr. Chu and his deputies.

“He must not be allowed to continue thumbing his nose at the will of Congress and the American people,” Mr. Gorman said.

Mr. Chu, who is no longer with the Defense Department, told The Times that an “enormous amount of confusion” has been associated with the memo and advised The Times to speak with William Carr, the acting deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy.

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About the Author
Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter writes the daily “Hot Button” column for The Washington Times. She was formerly a national political reporter for Townhall.com, the leading online publication for news, opinion and talk. Prior to that, she was a reporter for Human Events. Ms. Carpenter has made numerous media appearances that include segments on the Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC and other ...

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