March 24, 2009, Washington, DC (AP) — Veterans advocates told Congress on Tuesday that a World War II-era law requiring proof of participation in combat in order to receive certain benefits creates an unnecessary hurdle for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not on the front lines.
Note: Please see VCS Statement on re-defining combat: http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/articleid/12533
There is particular concern, they said, that the rule interferes with disability benefits for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder whose trauma may not be documented by the military. PTSD can affect people who experience a traumatic event. Symptoms can include flashbacks and anxiety.
The mental disorder has affected service members in noninfantry roles such as truck drivers or cooks, who on today’s battlefields are vulnerable to roadside bombs or mortar attacks. They often lack a combat infantry badge or other documentation to prove their battlefield experience.
The VA has said that about half of all disability claims for PTSD are approved, and the majority of denials come because the veteran lacks evidence of injury related to their time in the service, according to a report last year from the Congressional Budget Office.
Female veterans, who are officially banned from infantry jobs but still experience combat in the current war zones, are among those having difficulty in obtaining the benefits, Carolyn Schapper, an Iraq War veteran, testified.
“The traditional understanding of female servicemembers’ military duties has been the biggest hurdle to getting them adequate compensation for their injury,” said Schapper, a member of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, which held Tuesday’s hearing, said the law should be updated to define a combat veteran as any veteran who served in a combat theater of operations or in combat against a hostile force.
“There should be a better way for VA to assist veterans suffering from PTSD to adjudicate those claims without being burdensome, stressful and adversarial,” Hall said.
It’s estimated that if the law is changed, thousands more veterans would seek disability compensation for PTSD, potentially costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The CBO report said the average disability rating for a veteran with PTSD earned them about $543 a month.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said he was concerned that changing the combat veteran definition could result in a reduction of benefits overall, and that “too loose” a definition could diminish the sacrifices of those “who actually did engage in battle with the enemy.”
Under the proposed change, a diagnosis of PTSD would still be required to obtain the disability benefits.
Organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion argue that Congress’ original intent was to include all combat veterans, but the VA has interpreted it otherwise over the years.
Bradley Mayes, director of Veterans Benefits Administration’s Compensation and Pension Service, told the subcommittee that changes have been made to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to qualify for disability compensation.
Antonette Zeiss, deputy chief officer for mental health services at the Veterans Health Administration, noted that the VA provides health care for five years for the recent veterans, so some veterans are getting treatment for PTSD even if they are not receiving disability benefits for PTSD.