Political Activism

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Politics is something I always tried to steer clear from. It tends to polarize people even about issues that don’t seem particularly polarizing on their faces. However, party affiliation and support or detraction from a particular candidate or politician has become a part of many people’s identities, and attacks on a politician or political party viewed as personal attacks on a person who identifies with the same.

I served on active duty with the United States Air Force from 2007-2018. I was medically retired due to a disability I incurred while serving in Afghanistan. More on that here. Now in some ways, being retired from the military has “freed” me to publicly state a position on political matters, whereas before I took seriously the duty of government employees to maintain neutrality and not to endorse a particular candidate or political party, but instead to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and to obey the orders of higher ranking commissioned officers and our civilian chain-of-command, to include the US President as commander-in-chief.

That having been said, the purpose of this post is not to advocate for or against a particular candidate, elected official, or political party. My personal political views are probably rather clear to those who follow me on Twitter (@KevinReinholz). Rather, I wanted to share my experience of becoming an activist for a particular cause, and in some ways the exercise in frustration that has been.

The political cause I chose to become involved with is one that is near and dear to my heart, and affects me personally: the 1891 prohibition on military retirees receiving both their earned military pensions through their branch of service (in my case, the US Air Force) and disability compensation through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

I started a Petition on Change.org advocating for Congress to correct this injustice. It is worth noting that the unjust prohibition on receiving both a military pension (available only to military retirees who meet specific criteria such as lengthy service or incapacitation for performance of military duties as a result of a service-connected disability) and Veterans Affairs disability benefits (available to any veteran who served 90 days or more, including at least 1 day during a period of war, to include 2 August 1990 – Present) was partially corrected by legal changes in 2003 and subsequent years. However, that “fix” was and is partial, and leaves out a significant population of deserving, and yes, needy, disabled military retirees.

Under the current law, 10 USC § 1414, military retirees who are eligible for both a military pension (retired pay) and who are rated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being at least 50% disabled may receive both their earned military pension and their VA disability compensation. However, military retirees rated as 40% or less disabled are denied “concurrent receipt” of both their pension and the VA disability compensation they otherwise qualify for. They have to sacrifice either all or a portion of their military pension, or forego receiving VA disability compensation. This seems more than a little unfair when one considers that an individual who served 90 days, not even finishing a single enlistment, may receive lifetime VA disability compensation, yet a 20 or 30 year military retiree and pensioner with a 40% disability rating may not.

There’s another class of military retirees who likewise are left out in the cold:  those involuntarily retired due to incapacitating disability. Under service regulations, the military can forcibly retire military members if, in connection with their military service, they have become so incapacitated they are no longer capable of performing military duties. I am one such involuntary military retiree, having served 10 years, 11 months on active duty. I have friends who have served 13 or even 18 years and been involuntarily retired due to service-connected disabilities. We’re not allowed to receive both our military pensions and VA disability compensation, even though in my own case and that of several others I know, we are rated as 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs–in other words, the VA has assessed us as having no reasonable capability of working. Moreover, our military pensions are far lower than they would have been had we not become disabled through our military service–military pensions are calculated based on the average of the highest 36 months of military basic pay. This increases exponentially the more years of service one has, and with each subsequent promotion. Thus, our pensions are far less than they would otherwise have been, and we’re denied “concurrent receipt” of both our military pensions and the VA disability compensation we’re otherwise eligible for. That’s a double financial hit for disabled veterans/military retirees who sacrificed our health and future employability in service of our nation.

So, what did I do about it? For starters, I started my Petition on Change.org. I also wrote to the Representatives and Senators on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees charged with reviewing and suggesting changes to the law as it regards Military Personnel, to include retirement benefits.

Here’s where you can find a list of the 14 Representatives on the House Armed Services Committee with the most power to change this law:

https://armedservices.house.gov/subcommittees/military-personnel-115th-congress

And here’s where you can find a list of the 7 Senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee with the most power to change this law:

https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/about/subcommittees (Scroll down to “Subcommittee on Personnel” about halfway down the page)

And here’s a sample of what I wrote to these 21 Representatives and Senators with the power to make such a positive impact on my future as well as that of numerous other disabled military retirees:

[Senator][Representative] [Name],

I was recently retired from active duty with the United States Air Force for disability. I am aware of S. 66, H.R. 333, and H.R. 303. I am also aware of MOAA’s legislative outreach activities on behalf of disabled military retirees: http://www.moaa.org/Content/Take-Action/Top-Issues/Currently-Serving/These-2-Bills-Address-Retirement-Pay–Here-s-How-They-Differ-.aspx.

If you’d like to read about my personal story and how disability caused by a deployment to Afghanistan and chemical exposures during the same cut short my military career and placed me in a position I never thought I’d be, having to ask for help rather than being fully self reliant, I have a lengthy account on my personal website here: https://kevinreinholz.com/chronic-illness/

While I support H.R. 333 and MOAA’s position on this matter, I also recognize Congressional budgetary concerns and therefore propose a “compromise position” that is somewhere between H.R. 333 and H.R. 303 should it be politically unpalatable to pass H.R. 333 as written (which I would certainly support). I hope you will hear me out, and thank you in advance for your time and consideration. My primary concern with H.R. 303 is that I believe the Services are unfairly denying Combat Related Special Compensation, in particular “Instrumentality of War” designations, in their disability retirement decisions for Chapter 61 retirees, in spite of ample medical evidence supporting the award of such designations. We have not admitted “chemical exposures” caused lifelong, incurable illnesses for our service members since the Vietnam War and Agent Orange—yet it is clear that numerous service members since at least the Persian Gulf Conflict have been disabled by exactly such “friendly fire.” For that reason, I cannot support H.R. 303 as it unfairly penalizes me and other military retirees who had their careers and health destroyed by toxic chemical exposures inflicted on us by our own forces.

As you know, until recently, military retirees who were also rated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being at least 50% disabled as a result of their military service were forced to choose between receiving either their military pension OR disability compensation through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Congress partially corrected this injustice, recognizing that a military pension is earned compensation for a service member’s faithful service to our nation and a promised benefit for his or her military service (10 USC, Chapters 61-67), and disability compensation is an entirely separate benefit, administered through a separate government agency, to compensate all veterans (not just retirees) for service-connected injuries or illnesses, provided the injury is connected to the veteran’s military service and the veteran was not dishonorably discharged. (38 USC §§ 1110, 1131).

Military retirees were being unjustly penalized for suffering incurable injuries or diseases in the service of our nation by being denied a benefit (disability compensation) available to any veteran who served any length of time in uniform, lest they be required to surrender their earned military retirement/pension in order to avoid receiving “dual compensation.” This situation was particularly cruel when one considers that injured retirees, unlike perfectly healthy retirees, have fewer opportunities to obtain and maintain meaningful employment due to their service‐connected injuries or illnesses. They sacrificed their health and wellness to serve our country, and we denied them either their earned military pension OR the disability compensation they were entitled to, in spite of their being otherwise eligible for both, in the name of saving money.

The fix to this injustice is codified at 10 USC § 1414. That law states that military retirees who are eligible for both a military pension (retired pay) AND who are rated by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being at least 50% disabled as a result of their military service need not choose between receiving their full pension or receiving disability compensation, but may finally receive both.

As positive a step as this law and subsequent amendments to it were, there is still a group of disabled military retirees who are left out and penalized financially for becoming injured or ill in the service of our nation: military retirees who were retired with less than 20 years of qualified service due to a service-connected disability.

While one might argue that having served less than 20 years, those military retirees who were retired due to a military service-connected disability may justly be forced to choose between pension benefits and VA disability compensation, this particular class of military retirees actually has a greater need to receive both benefits. For starters, military service members involuntarily retired due to a service connected disability prior to completing 20 years of service have already incurred a significant financial penalty in the form of a greatly reduced pension, as military pension amounts are calculated according to the member’s highest 36 months of basic pay multiplied by either their service disabling disability percentage (which is NOT the same as their VA disability rating, and is normally far less) or a calculation involving their length of service, whichever method is more beneficial to the service member. A career cut short due to disability incurred in the line of duty is a career with a significantly lower final pay (or last 36 months) than a career allowed to continue to 20 years’ fruition.

Changing the law to ease this restriction would not “open the floodgates” to all disabled veterans. But for an injury or illness incurred in the line of duty, that is, disability due to the member’s military service, the service member will not be retired from the military for disability but will simply be discharged as unsuited for further military service. Members retired for disability must already face significant scrutiny over their injuries or illness, and a painful, protracted review process that routinely exceeds 2 years, before a decision in favor of military retirement for disability might possibly be reached.

A military member forcibly retired due to an injury or illness incurred in the line of duty, and rated as 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, has little to no hope of ever securing meaningful employment once forcibly retired from the military. In contrast, a 20-year retiree with a 50% VA disability rating might thrive in a sedentary (e.g. office) job and secure significant earnings in addition to his or her dual military pension and VA disability compensation. Thus, the 100% disabled retiree should not be penalized for having his or her military career cut short due to a severe service‐connected disability. On the contrary, his or her sacrifice should be honored and dual compensation allowed just as it is for the 20 year retiree with a 50% disability rating.

Therefore, I propose to amend 10 USC § 1414 by deleting subparagraph (b) in its entirety, or in the alternative to amend subparagraph (b)(2) to read as follows:

(2) Disability retirees with less than 20 years of service.-Subsection (a) does not apply to a member retired under chapter 61 of this title with less than 20 years of service otherwise creditable under section 1405 of this title, or with less than 20 years of service computed under section 12732 of this title, at the time of the member’s retirement, unless the disability retiree has at least 10 years of service or is eligible for veterans’ disability compensation for a qualifying service-connected disability or disabilities rated either individually or cumulatively at 100 percent.

The longest enlistment length is 6 years, so by serving at least 10 years, a service member has essentially indicated his/her intent to make a career of military service. Being forcibly retired early due to a service-connected disability is a traumatic and heartbreaking occurrence for many disability retirees, who would have continued serving until 20 years but for becoming injured or ill in the line of duty. Likewise, a retiree rated as 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs is in a dire situation, and unlikely to be able to obtain or maintain meaningful employment. Adding either or both categories of disability retirees to 10 USC § 1414(a)’s allowance of both retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation not only further corrects the injustice partially remedied by 10 USC § 1414, but assists our most vulnerable military retirees in maintaining some semblance of a decent standard of living.

If any group of Americans is deserving of a financial benefit (or in this case, removal of an unjust financial penalty codified in law), it is military retirees who became injured or ill in the service of our nation. Therefore, I urge Congress to amend 10 USC § 1414 by either deleting subparagraph (b) in its entirety, or in the alternative by amending subparagraph (b)(2) as indicated above. To do so would make a world of difference in the lives of many military retirees who answered their nation’s call and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of all that this country stands for, and indeed have sacrificed their health and future employability serving our nation.

Thank you so much for hearing me out.

Very respectfully,

[Your Name]

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So what has this brief foray into political activism taught me? For starters, it’s a lot harder than it seems! After sharing my Petition on Twitter and Facebook, I immediately experienced a surge of support and re-shares. However, as of 8 June 2018 the Petition was at 245 signatures–not bad, but it cruised to 100 signatures shortly after it started–over 2 months ago. The Petition stalled out significantly after then.

My letter writing campaign, I believe, may yet bear more fruit, especially if others follow suit and either write (letters or e-mails) or call those 21 Representatives and Senators in charge of Military Personnel Law on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Moreover, the Military Officer’s Association of America (MOAA) #6 legislative goal for 2018 aligns well with what I’m trying to accomplish: http://www.moaa.org/2018Goals/. That is encouraging insofar as MOAA is a powerful lobby and I, frankly, am not. That having been said, personal stories, especially from retired military veterans afflicted by disabilities and experiencing financial hardship due to the current state of the law, cannot but help this effort.

I may yet foray into more political activism. Another topic near and dear to my heart is how I got my disability in the first place, the current theory being that toxic exposures caused neurological and immune dysfunction in me and hundreds of thousands of other war veterans who deployed to the Middle East or Southwest Asia in support of US military operations. While there is a growing consensus about our government inadvertently poisoning its own Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen during the Persian Gulf War, not much attention has been given to the plight of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, even though our symptoms are virtually the same as Persian Gulf War veterans (so much so that I was told by a specialist I matched 1 of 2 distinct subgroups of Gulf War Illness veterans that he had identified in a previous study).

I would sure like to draw attention to the irreparable harm we’re causing to our military service members by exposing them to toxic substances, and demand the government take action to prevent my brothers and sisters in arms from becoming disabled like me in the future, but I feel the medical science (and research funding) has to catch up first, until the case is so cut-and-dry that no one but the greatest of fools would deem to deny what we’re doing while keeping a straight face. I hope that evidence comes soon, because it is sickening to think of others becoming disabled the same way I was through their military service.