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The US government says “Thank-you for your service (but not really)”

I have been reading with interest about the California National Guard members who are being forced to repay the Sign-On bonuses.   And with equal interest I have been perusing the responses of the American public to these news stories.  And I am saying to myself – Wow, this is nothing new, this kind of stuff has been going on for years and years – military members being asked to pay back large sums of money, money they were promised by the US Government for their service.  The government promises their military members bonuses, their veterans – separation pay and disability pay and then decides at some later date, down the road, to take it all back.  And most veterans have no way of fighting the government, and I suspect many who are dependent on disability payments and in good faith accepted these sums of money are now finding themselves, and their families quite destitute because of the government’s demand for repayment.

I have experienced all of this, and know for a fact, there are thousands and thousands of veterans required to pay back Voluntary Separation Incentives Bonuses, Involuntary Separation Bonuses and all types of other payments issued to them on leaving the military.  I am one of those veterans.

In 2003, after being passed over twice for promotion to Lt. Col (I was told my visibility to the upper echelons was minimal, I didn’t do enough base-wide officer like stuff – because I was in the Pediatric clinic day after day – caring for the dependents on base – but that is a whole other story), I was given the option of either finishing an additional 2 years to complete my 20 years, thereby being eligible for retirement, or getting out and taking the Separation Bonus they were offering.  I had had enough of the military. My husband and I decided I would get out, and he would stay on Active Duty.  So I did.  I got out.

While out-processing, I was advised to submit a Veterans Disability claim, which I thought was the biggest waste of time, but I did it anyway, because that is what I was told to do.  Well, to my surprise, the Veterans Administration came back with a disability of 70%, because of some surgeries and long-standing issues I had documented in my military medical records, that I honestly thought were never a big deal, but the VA did.  The VA sent me a letter to say I would receive a certain amount of money based on this this disability percentage.

And sure enough, the payments started.  We came to depend on these payments, they were part of our monthly income.  And they continued until 2011, when they just stopped.   I called the VA to find out why they had stopped, and they said it was because I had to repay my Separation Bonus.  I said why – I thought that was kind of like a lump sum given to me for spending 18 years of my life in the military.  The VA said, well, you can’t have both.  You can’t receive a Separation Bonus and receive disability payments at the same time.  I said – Why not, that doesn’t make any sense.  They said – It’s the law.  I said – What kind of stupid law is that? The VA customer representative said – I don’t know, but it is a law.

I went looking for this law, because I was seething with anger, and feeling so incredibly betrayed. I needed answers. I found this quote on the VA Form 21-051

Disability Compensation: VA pays monthly compensation to veterans for disabilities incurred or aggravated during military service. This benefit is not subject to Federal or State income tax. Entitlement is established from the date of separation if the claim is filed within one year from separation. Generally, military retirement pay is reduced by any VA compensation received. Income from Special Separation Benefits (SSB) and Voluntary Separation Incentives (VSI) affects the amount of VA compensation paid.

This is another quote from a different site out of Minnesota:

In most cases, veterans cannot receive both retirement benefits and disability compensation

“Concurrent receipt” refers to a veteran’s eligibility to receive both military retirement benefits and VA disability compensation.  Until 2004, concurrent receipt was prohibited by federal law, so a person receiving military retirement pay was required to waive some or all of that pay in order to receive VA disability compensation.  The federal law was changed as of January 1, 2004, so that any military retiree with a VA disability rating of 50 percent or higher, or any Purple Heart medal recipient with a rating of 10 percent or higher, is eligible for full concurrent receipt of his or her military retirement pay and veterans disability compensation.

I cannot find the actual “law” itself – but I think the quotes above clearly point out you cannot have both. And in my case, I did not retire, so I had to pay the whole amount back.  Luckily, I didn’t have to pay back the taxes I had already paid on the Separation pay. I have heard of people having to do this, which is so ridiculous.  With no other options, I spent the next 5 years paying back the $84,000 I was paid for 18 years of service.  I did not receive a disability check for 5 years.  And during all that time, I kept thinking to myself, what if I had solely depended on that disability check? What if I and my husband had not had good paying jobs?  We would have been out on the streets in a matter of weeks, because the disability payments from the VA just stopped so suddenly and without warning.  The VA said they sent me a letter, but I never received it.

Here is my biggest issue with all this.  Say for example you had two active duty members – both served 20 years and were eligible for retirement. However, one of the active duty members sat behind a desk his entire career, while the other went into combat, and was injured.  According to the way the government does things, they both will get paid EXACTLY the same amount when they retire, because military member that saw combat cannot receive BOTH retirement and a disability payment.  Does that make any sense at all? I tried to explain this in a flurry of letters I wrote to President Obama and multiple Congressmen.  Dianne Feinstein sent a nice letter back to say she was very sorry about all this, but it was the law.  The only other response I received from anyone else was incessant emails from Obama’s camp requesting campaign contributions.  The gall of it all!

I paid back all the money and began receiving disability checks again, just this year, I think in February.  In May I received a letter from the VA which stated I now owed them an additional $27,000 and I was scheduled to begin repaying it this August.  Well, needless to say I went NUTS! I called the VA and asked why this was happening AGAIN.  They said because I was on Active Duty in 2011, which I was not.  I went to my Veterans Service Office and they called and were told the exact same thing. I kept calling and could get no answers.  The payments stopped again.  On a whim, I called the VA one more time, and was on hold for at least 100 minutes, if not longer (I managed to fold a load of laundry, balance my checkbook, empty the dishwasher, while waiting) and the VA customer service representative (who was amazingly nice and apparently knowledgeable) really looked into it, and said his records indicated I was being charged the $27,000 because I wasn’t entitled to receive payments for dependents, even though I had just spent the last half hour folding my “non-existent dependents” underwear. He explained to me their records were incomplete, they did not have the proper documentation.  I sent in the requested paperwork and the payments have been reinstated (but how long they will continue, is anyone’s guess).

I suspect if I hadn’t had the perseverance to keep calling – I would still be paying back that $27,000.  I feel for these men and women who are disabled, and leave the military after serving their country and getting nothing but grief and aggravation in return.  It is truly horrible our country’s veterans are being treated so indifferently. And so when I read about what the California National Guard members are going through, I am deeply saddened that this is happening to them, but also glad that this information is coming to light. 

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