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December 22, 2014

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Deal on vets’ benefits reached

WASHINGTON -- Retired disabled veterans could soon be entitled to both their retirement pay and disability checks.

But only certain veterans.

This frustrates Joseph Odya, a veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, who noted that the change will be phased in through 2014.

"This is stupid," said Odya, a Southern Nevadan who is also a service officer for the American Veterans Organization. He said in the time it takes to implement the plan, many veterans "are going to die. Congress knows that."

Odya's concerns stem from an agreement reached Thursday by House and Senate leadership and the White House to allow veterans with 20 years or more of service and a 50 percent disability rate to receive both retirement and disability benefits through a phase-in program ending in 2014.

Under current law most disabled veterans who qualify for military retirement pay have their retirement check reduced by the amount of their disability payment. Civilian government workers are allowed to receive both disability and retirement concurrently.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been pushing legislation to implement a full concurrent receipt for all retired, disabled veterans since 2000.

He agreed to the compromise Thursday, ending an intense political battle, as veterans groups called for the coverage but the Bush administration and Republican leaders resisted funding full concurrent receipt.

Although a limited offer, Reid called the compromise proposal a "big step in the right direction."

"Four years ago no one was helping me, now we've got a lot of help," Reid said. "It's not everything I wanted but still a lot of what I wanted."

Senate Armed Services Committee leaders John Warner, R-Va., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., visited Reid Thursday morning to make sure he approved of the compromise, which he did.

"We'll go further later on," Reid said.

The approved language creates a $22 billion program for all retirees with a 50 percent or greater disability rating. The reduction in their military retired pay will be phased completely by 2014.

Starting Jan. 1 the agreement will put $750 per month into the check of a retired veteran with a 100 percent disabled rating and $100 a month in the check of a 50 percent disabled veteran, with other percentages falling in between.

The compromise also allows all retirees with any level of combat or operations-related disability for full concurrent receipt through the Combat-Related Special Compensation program approved last year.

All retired National Guard members and reservists with any level of combat disability or who are Purple Heart recipients will also qualify.

The agreement also creates a 13-member commission to study the disability and death compensation and assistance provided by the government. Seven members must be veterans with a Silver Star or higher combat decoration.

Earlier talk of changing the definition of disability to be specifically related to the performance of military duty appears to be off the table.

"Our solution is fair, responsible, and a huge step forward after years of gridlock on this important issue," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a member of the conference committee that created the plan."

Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said it has been more than 100 years since a change of this nature has taken place.

"It's a great start but, yes, we need to do more," Porter said. "I know every year we're going to make improvement."

Jack Finn spokesman for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the senator was in favor of the deal.

"It's the one area where he thinks an increase in government spending is a good thing," Finn said.

The language is set to be added to the defense authorization bill now in conference committee.

But Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who has also been working on the issue called the proposal "a slap in the face for the veterans."

"This is a pathetic excuse for an agreement," Berkley said. "If you were a 20-year-old on D-Day, you're 80 now and by then you're going to be 90."

She objected to the phase-in process and the fact that only those with a 50 percent disability would be covered.

Ed Gobel, president of the Council of Nevada Veterans Organizations, agreed. "It should be for all disabled," he said. "It doesn't come close to address that."

Gobel said it would only help about 28 percent of those affected.

Full concurrent receipt for all disabled, retired veterans has been estimated to cost $58 billion.

"If we have enough money to provide a tax cut and billion to rebuild Iraq, we should have the money for veterans before they die of old age," Berkley said. "With a 10-year phase-in, that's exactly what's going to happen.'

But despite some grumblings, some veterans are please with the outcomes. "This is such a huge step from anything anyone has recognized in the past," said Steve Strobridge, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. "We are extremely grateful for it."

Strobridge, who has been lobbying on this issue for 10 years, said he will continue to work for other benefits, but is happy for now.

"We learned a long time ago if that if you hold out for all or nothing, you usually get nothing," Strobridge said.

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