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Disabled? Or Dissembling?


America’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing veterans with grievous injuries, which might not have been survivable in earlier wars. Currently, America spends$29 billion annually in disability compensation to American veterans. In 25 years, that number is expected to be $59 billion, even though the population of veterans is expected to shrink in that time. No one wants to deny a disabled veteran compensation. But are all those dollars really going to truly disabled people?


Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) spoke for thousands when earlier this year she questioned the integrity of an IRS contractor who had used his 30-percent disability as a “leg up” on gaining the contract for his company. His injury, incurred during a military prep school football game, is much less severe than Ms. Duckworth’s injuries, which include the loss of two legs and the use of one arm. Shaming Mr. Braulio Castillo publicly, Ms. Duckworth pointed out that veterans who feign, exaggerate, or exploit a disability demean those veterans who, even with obvious disability, must wait months or years for an evaluation and subsequent treatment and rehabilitation. The system is broken, and those who game the system are part of the reason why.


Another reason for the swollen ranks of disabled veterans is a sense of entitlement that has come to pervade almost every aspect of our culture. Soldiers, upon leaving the service, are practically invited to claim a disability. At separation, they are told it’s easier to enter the VA system while still on active duty and that efforts to apply in future years will be difficult. The reluctance to apply that existed among earlier veterans is no longer evident. “I served, so I’m entitled” is the excuse voiced by too many veterans who are receiving disability compensation but are in no way truly disabled. They live full lives, go on to second careers, function as spouses and parents, and deal with life’s ups and downs as any other citizen in this country must. Their service should be acknowledged when they apply for federal jobs or contracts, and any preference should be based on honorable service, not on disability.


This argument inflames many Americans who believe patriotism must include so high a regard for soldiers and veterans that no questions should be raised about disability. Military service is indeed a noble calling, and catastrophic injuries can be incurred in the course of service. These disabilities — and they need not be visible — should be considered in assessing the soldier’s future and compensated for in a reasonable way that will enable the soldier to live as full and independent a life as possible. But it is wrong to exaggerate an injury or condition in order to be awarded disability compensation. It is also wrong to feign sacrifice and virtue as Mr. Castillo did in writing, “I would gladly do it again [play football at military prep school] to protect this great country.”


The military has long been admired by the American public at large, eclipsed only by the institutions of church and organized religion. Soldiers are seen as selfless, volunteering to put their very lives at risk on behalf of this nation. They are perceived as serious and honest, people of integrity, taking a sworn oath as they begin their service to the country. They certainly should be regarded highly and with gratitude. However, the burgeoning numbers of veterans who receive disability compensation while resuming full and normal lives has the potential to undermine the public perception of the military.


America will always honor its veterans. That promise includes compensating those whose service has rendered them unable to live normally thereafter. All patriotic Americans would agree to that. But just as it is fiscally imperative to reduce the size of our military forces, so too must we reevaluate the definition of disability in compensating veterans. There are many veterans, disabled and otherwise, among those patriotic Americans, who are grateful to be intact and functional after combat service and who will gladly bear the cost of compensating those who are not, for as long as they are not. But the covenant must be revisited. The Department of Veterans Affairs should focus on compensating the permanently disabled, rehabilitating those who can be restored to health, and restricting the status of “disabled” to those whose service has left them incapable of living a normal life.
— By retired Army spouse Sara VanderClute


 


 


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66 MILITARY OFFICER NOVEMBER 2013

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