Definition of combat-related injury narrows

Staff reports Updated: November 25, 2008 at 12:00 am • Published: November 25, 2008

Marine Cpl. James Dixon was wounded twice in Iraq - by a roadside bomb and a land mine. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a concussion, a dislocated hip and hearing loss. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Sgt. Lori Meshell shattered a hip and crushed her back and knees while diving for cover during a mortar attack in Iraq. She has undergone a hip replacement and knee reconstruction and needs at least three more surgeries.

In each case, the Pentagon ruled that their disabilities were not combat-related.

In a little-noticed regulation change in March, the military's definition of combat-related disabilities was narrowed, costing some injured veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits - and triggering outrage from veterans' advocacy groups.

The Pentagon said the change was consistent with Congress' intent when it passed a "wounded warrior" law in January. Narrowing the combat-related definition was necessary to preserve the "special distinction for those who incur disabilities while participating in the risk of combat, in contrast with those injured otherwise," William Carr, deputy undersecretary of Defense, wrote in a letter to the 1.3-million-member Disabled American Veterans.

The group, which has called the policy revision a "shocking level of disrespect for those who stood in harm's way," is lobbying to have the change rescinded.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon's "more conservative definition" limited benefits for some veterans. "That was not our intent," Levin said in a statement.

He added: "When the disability is the same, the impact on the service member should be the same no matter whether the disability was incurred while training for combat at Fort Hood or participating in actual combat in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Pentagon officials argue that benefits should be greater for veterans wounded in combat than for "members with disabilities incurred in other situations (e.g., simulation of war, instrumentality of war, or participation in hazardous duties, not related to combat)," Carr wrote.

But veterans such as Dixon and Meshell said their disabilities were a direct result of wounds suffered in combat.

Dixon said he was denied at least $16,000 in benefits before he fought the Pentagon and won a reversal of his noncombat-related designation.

"I was blown up twice in Iraq, and my injuries weren't combat-related?" Dixon said. "It's the most imbecile thing I've ever seen."

Meshell, who is appealing her status, estimates she is losing at least $1,200 a month in benefits. Despite being injured in a combat zone during an enemy mortar attack, she said, her wounds would be considered combat-related only if she had been struck by shrapnel.

Meshell said the military had suggested that at least some of her disability was caused by pre-existing joint deterioration. "Before I went over there, I was fine - I was perfectly healthy," Meshell said. "This whole thing is causing me a lot of heartache."

Kerry Baker, associate legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, has accused the Pentagon of narrowing the definition of combat-related disabilities to save money. He said the change would reduce payments for tens of thousands of veterans - those wounded and those injured in the future.

"This is going to hurt a lot of people," Baker said. "It's one of those things that when you first look at it, you think: ‘Wow. How can this be?'"

The January legislation was aimed at allowing troops wounded in combat and combat-related operations to collect disability severance from the military and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Disability severance is based on past service. Disability compensation is based on future loss of earning potential. Previously, veterans with combat-related disabilities received reduced monthly VA compensation until their severance money was recouped. That is still the case for those whose injuries are not deemed combat-related.

Years ago, Congress adopted a detailed definition of combat-related disabilities. It included such criteria as hazardous service, conditions simulating war and disability caused by an "instrumentality of war."

Those criteria were not altered in the January legislation.

The Pentagon, in establishing an internal policy based on the legislation, in March unlawfully stripped those criteria from the legislation, the Disabled American Veterans said.

"We do not view this as an oversight," Baker testified before Congress in June. "We view this as an intentional effort to conserve monetary resources at the expense of disabled veterans."

The Pentagon changes focused on "tip of the spear" fighters or those "in the line of duty in a combat zone," said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. They comprise "a very special, yet limited, subset of those who matriculate through the Disability Evaluation System," Lainez wrote in an e-mail response to a request for comment.

Dixon said he did not realize he had been put in a noncombat-related category until he began questioning his disability payments. It took more than six months of phone calls, letters and appeals - plus help from the Disabled American Veterans and a member of Congress - to overturn his designation.

"It was a nightmare," Dixon said. "Most veterans don't know how the system works, or how to fight it. They don't realize all the obstacles they put in your way to keep you from getting what you deserve."

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