- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

As our military men and women continue to do a great job to keep us safe and secure, a heated debate has broken out over whether veterans should receive both disability pay and retirement pay. This issue is called concurrent receipt.

As usual, there’s a lot of finger pointing in Washington and misrepresentation of the facts.

When a veteran retires, military pension benefits from Defense Department are reduced, dollar for dollar, by the amount of disability benefits received from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The Republican-led Congress has changed the current system to help America’s veterans.

This Congress is the first to take a serious look at military retiree benefits; Democratic Congresses under Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson failed to act on this important issue.

First, to help military retirees in desperate need, last year Congress established the Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC) program.

Under the CRSC program, tax-free benefits are available to military retirees who have at least 20 years of service and who have received the Purple Heart. The other way to become eligible for CRSC is to be at least 60 percent disabled as a result of armed conflict. This program became effective this May.

CRSC marked the first significant change to compensation for military retirees since 1892.

Now, there is a second phase in helping disabled military retirees as well as our reservists and guardsmen. Republicans have proposed common-sense solutions that send more disability money to our veterans.

First, under the new plan, military retirees who are at least 50 percent disabled will receive both their disability and retirement pay starting in 2004 — phased in more than 10 years.

Second, the plan opens up eligibility for CRSC to all retirees with combat-related disabilities — regardless of the level of disability.

Next, CRSC eligibility would extend to all reserve and guard retirees with a combat-related injury. This provision is essential at a time when our Reservists and Guardsmen are playing such an integral role in our current war on terror.

Finally, the proposal would also authorize a study of disability guidelines, focusing on modernization and reform.

This historic plan establishes concurrent receipt for far more disabled veterans than have ever been covered by law. It’s a solution that’s fair, responsible and that properly honors our nation’s disabled veterans.

Yet, lobbyists who claim to be for veterans’ causes have cried foul, playing politics with veterans. Covered in the American flag, and sometimes in military medals, critics argue they won’t be happy until veterans receive 100 percent of disability and 100 percent retirement.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe veterans should receive both. In fact, I joined more than 370 other members of Congress in co-sponsoring a bill that would do just that. However, those rallying for full concurrent receipt must not allow their well-intentioned zeal to blind them of real, substantial progress. To them I say, until Republicans took control of Congress, no Congress gave a darn about concurrent receipt. Until now, there was only rhetoric.

As a 29-year Air Force fighter pilot and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, believe me, I know what military life is like. And I know how the military retirement and disabilities system work. I know things can be complicated, cumbersome and at times overwhelming.

It’s time veterans started contacting their local lawmakers and senators to back this new agreement. Contact Capitol Hill now.

Veterans, light up the switchboards and tell your U.S. representative and senators to support this common-sense compromise. Tell them veterans want this proposal passed by the end of the year.

We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And we cannot let our veterans down. They’ve given our great country so much. It’s time they see something in return.

Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Johnson served in the Air Force for 29 years. He was held captive in Vietnam for nearly seven years, spending 42 months in solitary confinement.

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