It has been more than 20 years since the start of the first war in Iraq and thousands of military veterans are newly eligible for retirement. Many are also disabled. And some vets might be in for a surprise when they find out their pension checks are being reduced because of their disability.
Retired Sgt. First Class Keith Ciancio joined the Army in 1989 and served more than 20 years, first as a vehicle mechanic, then as a scout, specializing in surveillance. He retired two years ago, eligible for a military pension.
Recently the Kitsap County man got a physical where x-rays revealed small spinal fractures, not charted by doctors during his military exit physical "which most likely occurred in a vehicle accident in 2005 in Kuwait, and no mention of that was ever made in my separation physical," said Ciancio. He insists the injuries did not happen after he retired.
When Ciancio "separated" from the military, as they term it, the Veterans Administration determined that he was 30 percent disabled, meaning he was entitled to a certain level of disability benefits.
But the rules say that the amount of a retiree's disability benefits are deducted from his pension. Had the VA rated his disability at 50 percent or more, not at 30 percent, he would have received full retirement and disability.
That strikes Ciancio as unfair. He and others wonder if the government is trying to avoid paying full benefits to disabled retirees.
"You put two and two together and it seems like maybe some of the veterans are being intentionally underrated as a cost-saving measure," suggested Cianco.
Legislation in Congress to remove the penalty, the Disability Veterans Tax Termination Act, has been stalled for several years. Cost is a big concern. Ciancio has written to Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) and Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ), urging them to support the legislation.
Smith responded that to change the system would cost $28 billion over ten years. Smith explained that budget rules require that new spending be offset by an equal reduction from other federal programs.
Ciancio has a suggestion. "Maybe we need to raise taxes because that [fully funding military disability and retirement benefits] is something government must do and therefore it must be funded," he said.
You might suggest that allowing all injured veterans to collect full disability and retirement is double-dipping but Ciancio says that's comparing apples and oranges. He argues the two benefits are mutually exclusive since retirement benefits are earned based on years of service and disability benefits are compensation for on-the-job injury, similar to an insurance payout.
Ciancio tells me the policy that reduces his benefits is hard to swallow.
"It makes me feel like service connected disabled veterans are slighted and forgotten when there are questions of budget." He adds, "it's not that significant amount of a budget when compared to other federal government obligations."
To help pay for veterans benefits Ciancio suggests eliminating some hardware. He wonders, for example, if we really need another new Ford class aircraft carrier at a cost of $8 billion per copy.