Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Hearing Transcript on Legislative Hearing on H.R. 585, H.R. 156, and H.R. 704.
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 156, H.R. 585, AND H.R. 704
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
JUNE 19, 2007
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
SERIAL No. 110-28
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
June 19, 2007
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 156, H.R. 585, and H.R. 704
Chairman John J. Hall
Prepared statement of Chairman Hall
Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, prepared statement of
Hon. Gus M. Bilirakis
Prepared statement of Congressman Bilirakis
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin
American Ex-Prisoners of War, Norman Bussel, National Service Officer
Prepared statement of Mr. Bussel
American Legion, Steve Smithson, Deputy Director for Claims Services, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Prepared statement of Mr. Smithson
American Veterans (AMVETS), Jim King, Executive Director
Prepared statement of Mr. King
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Member, Government Relations Committee
Prepared statement of Ms. Wersel
Holden, Hon. Tim, a Representative in Congress from the State of Pennsylvania
Prepared statement of Congressman Holden
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Todd Bowers, Director of Government Affairs
Prepared statement of Mr. Bowers
Vietnam Veterans of America, Sharon Hodge, Associate Director of Government Affairs
Prepared statement of Ms. Hodge
Wounded Warrior Project, Meredith Beck, National Policy Director
Prepared statement of Ms. Beck
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
Paralyzed Veterans of America, statement
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Eric A. Hilleman, Deputy Director, National Legislative Service, statement
Walenchok McElhaney, Patricia, Niceville, FL, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record, and Administration Views:
Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, to Jack McCoy, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, questions dated June 19, 2007
Hon. Gordon H. Mansfield, Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to Hon. Bob Filner, Chairman, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, letter dated October 26, 2007, transmitting Administration's views and estimates for H.R. 704, H.R. 2259, and H.R. 1824
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 156, H.R. 585, AND H.R. 704
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 2:05 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Hare, Rodriguez, Lamborn, Bilirakis.
Mr. HALL. Good morning or should I say good afternoon, everyone.
I would ask for us to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Flags are in the front and the back of the room.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Mr. HALL. The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs is called to order. We will be holding a legislative hearing on H.R. 156, H.R. 585, and H.R. 704.
We have one unanimous consent request which is that, when she arrives, Representative Herseth Sandlin be allowed to testify from the dais if that is okay. She is on the full Committee, but not on this Subcommittee, and she is not able to actually be here for a little while yet due to a double booking.
Several of us have more than one Committee meeting happening at the same time, so we will be coming and going, but that does not mean that we are not anxious to hear your testimony on these non-controversial but critical bills.
I want to thank Mr. Holden for appearing before our Subcommittee to present testimony on his bill, H.R. 156, which would change the date of eligibility for disability and indemnity compensation (DIC) payments to survivors of former prisoners of War (POWs) to include those POWs who died before September 30th, 1999.
Current DIC payments for survivors of POWs are only payable to these POWs who died after September 30th, 1999. This bill would correct this inexplicable inequity.
I am proud to have one of my constituents from my district here today, Mr. Norman Bussel, past President of the American Ex-Prisoners of War Service Foundation, to testify in support of this legislation.
Welcome Mr. Bussel and thank you again for being here to offer your insight as a former POW. Thank you for your service to our country.
As with all mandatory spending, we will have to find the offsets to pay for this change in order to comply with PAYGO rules adopted at the beginning of this Congress. However, as the number of qualifying spouses has dwindled, I hope that we will be able to work in a bipartisan manner to help find the funding to assist this population of mostly widows.
The second bill under consideration today, H.R. 704, sponsored by Mr. Bilirakis also would affect the DIC programs. His bill would change the age of remarriage for surviving spouses from 57 to 55. Currently if a surviving spouse remarries before age 57, the DIC payments cease automatically. This is a harsh result for surviving spouses who have sacrificed and lost so much.
As Mr. Bilirakis will surely point out, changing the age of remarriage from 57 to 55 will also bring this provision in line with several other Federal survivors programs, particularly the Military Survivor Benefit Plan.
Here he is, Mr. Bilirakis himself. Good to see you, sir. I know this bill enjoys wide support and I certainly support its concept of allowing love to flourish for these survivors in their later years without penalty.
And lastly we will consider H.R. 585 sponsored by Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin, Chair of the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, which would change the retroactive provisions of the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program (TSGLI) to allow those servicemembers injured outside of Iraq and Afghanistan between October 7, 2001, and November 30th, 2005, to qualify for coverage.
Currently, only those who physically served in these combat areas qualify. Since December 1, 2005, all servicemembers who participate in the TSGLI Program are automatically covered with TSGLI no matter where they physically served and, thus, no fix is needed for these servicemembers at this time.
The TSGLI Program is intended to provide short-term help to the families of severely-injured servicemembers to help with incurred expenses and to help them and their families recover from their injuries.
In my own State of New York, 118 servicemembers have benefited from this program and the average payment is $61,229. In Colorado, 112 servicemembers received payment which averaged $58,482.
To date, the total number of TSGLI cases paid is 3,266 totaling $206,230,000. The average payout is $63,158. Surely many qualifying servicemembers and their families would benefit from this legislative fix and I wholeheartedly support it.
During times of war, all servicemembers offer the same gift to our country, their selfless service in our Armed Forces to defend our Nation. Each of their lives is valuable and potentially at risk no matter what or where the duty assignment may be. This bill, by making this small but substantive change, would recognize that truth.
Lastly, I look forward to hearing from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on its updated views on these bills.
I would now like to recognize Mr. Bilirakis to make a statement for himself or for Ranking Member Lamborn.
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Actually, this will be for Ranking Member Lamborn. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate it very much.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for recognizing me. I look forward to hearing the views of our witnesses and our colleagues on the legislation before us.
Our first bill is H.R. 156 and it provides dependency and indemnity compensation payments to the survivors of veterans rated totally disabled at the time of death who were former prisoners of war.
This bill lifts the payment restriction on families of those veterans who died after September 30th, 1999. I know my dad worked on this piece of legislation for years and I strongly support it.
In reading some of the testimony, it seems that there are less than 850 families that would qualify for this legislation, thus making it the least costly of the three.
Our second bill, which is H.R. 585, would extend retroactive payments under the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program to those servicemembers who were wounded outside of the theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This legislation has merit because any time a servicemember is seriously injured and would otherwise qualify for TSGLI, it should not matter where the traumatic injury occurred. And I certainly agree with that.
Our last bill, H.R. 704, of which I am the sponsor, would dispense with the restriction of DIC payments to survivors who remarry before age 57 and allows them to keep their DIC payment if they remarry after age 55.
So, Mr. Chairman, that is my explanation. I believe Doug does too, but I do not want to speak for him, but I personally support all three bills strongly.
[The statement of Congressman Bilirakis appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Bilirakis.
And before we go on to hear from Mr. Holden, who is our first panel—he is so powerful, he can be a whole panel by himself—I just wanted to offer into the record as part of our ongoing discussions the editorial from the Washington Post today headlined Mistreated Casualties about their analysis of the current functioning and/or dysfunction at the Department of Veterans Affairs and how it can be improved. And I think some of the things that we are working on right now are all designed to do that. So it is on the first editorial page.
[The article referenced by Chairman Hall, "Mistreated Casualties," The Washington Post, June 19, 2007, appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Ms. Herseth Sandlin is present now and we will recognize her for a statement.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Well, thank you very much, Chairman Hall and to the Ranking Member, for the opportunity to be part of your hearing today. I thank you for the hearing and including H.R. 585 in today's hearing. It is a bill that I introduced January 19, 2007, to expand the Traumatic Servicemember Group Life Insurance Program to certain servicemembers who do not currently qualify for the program's retroactive payments.
Implemented on December 1, 2005, the TSGLI is a traumatic injury protection rider under the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program that provides for payment to any member of the uniformed services who sustains a traumatic injury that results in certain severe losses.
In addition to covering all active-duty servicemembers who incur injuries after December 1, 2005, the program makes retroactive payments to servicemembers who incurred injuries since October 7, 2001, in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
In most cases, the insurance program operates as the intended financial link from the time of injury until the soldier is eligible for VA benefits. However, by defining " in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom" as a requirement for retroactive benefits, the regulation has disqualified a number of traumatically-injured servicemembers from payment based solely on their location at the time of their injury.
An example of a servicemember who would benefit from H.R. 585 is Seaman Robert Roeder who was injured in January 2005 when a cable on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk removed his leg below the knee. The USS Kitty Hawk was training for missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, because his injury occurred before the TSGLI legislation was passed and outside of OIF or OEF, he does not qualify for payment.
In addition to Seaman Robert Roeder, approximately 700 other veterans would benefit from passage of H.R. 585. These service men and women have been denied the same retroactive payment given to their wounded comrades simply because they were wounded outside OEF or OIF.
My legislation would ensure that all servicemembers wounded since the beginning of the War on Terrorism will receive payments for their injuries.
I would like to thank the Wounded Warrior Project for their work in helping bring this problem to my attention and for their work on behalf of our Nation's wounded veterans.
I also want to thank Senator Craig who has been a leading advocate of this issue and has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
So thank you again, Chairman Hall and Ranking Member Bilirakis, for allowing me the opportunity to speak today, and I look forward to working with you as we move this important bill forward.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Congresswoman.
I would ask our other Members if you would not mind, since we have Mr. Holden waiting to testify, if you could wait for statements or questions, so that we can move to his testimony. I now recognize the Honorable Tim Holden from Pennsylvania, 17th District, to testify on H.R. 156.
Mr. Holden, welcome.
Mr. HOLDEN. Thank you, Chairman Hall and Mr. Bilirakis and Members of the Subcommittee, for the opportunity to testify before you today in support of H.R. 156 which seeks to correct the inequity or, as the Chairman said, inexplicable inequity in the awarding of dependency and indemnity compensation benefits to surviving spouses of qualifying former prisoners of war.
Current law provides DIC benefits for surviving spouses of former prisoners of war who were rated as totally disabled for service-connected disability at the time of death so long as that former POW passes away after September 30th, 1999.
However, surviving spouses of qualifying former POWs who passed away before or on September 30th, 1999, do not qualify for any DIC benefits unless the former POW died of a service-connected disability or was 100 percent service-connected for at least ten years prior to their death.
Prior to 1999, all surviving spouses of qualifying former POWs were eligible for DIC benefits so long as the former POW was rated 100 percent disabled for a minimum of ten years prior to his or her death.
Since many POWs had difficulty in establishing their eligibility for service-connected compensation benefits until after Congress established certain presumptions, many POWs died while being 100 percent service-connected for less than ten years. That problem was addressed by the "Veterans Millennium Healthcare Act of 1999" which allowed surviving spouses to qualify if their POW spouse was service-connected for one year before death and died after September 30th, 1999.
Not too long after the "Veterans Millennium Healthcare Act" was enacted, Mr. Leigh Tallas, a veteran and advocate from one of the county VA offices in my congressional district, contacted me to express his concern with the consequence of limiting the awarding of benefits only in the case where the qualifying former POW died after September 30th, 1999. He told me about an active case he was working on where the surviving spouse was being penalized due to this provision.
Following my meeting with Mr. Tallas, I first introduced this legislation you are considering today in the 107th Congress and reintroduced it in each subsequent Congress.
Mr. Chairman, the change my bill seeks to do is very simple and straightforward. This bill will amend Title 38 of the U.S. Code to treat all surviving spouses of qualifying former POWs equally, granting them DIC benefits regardless of when their former POW spouse passed away.
While I was unable to secure a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in the 110th Congress, CBO estimated in 2003 that about 480 survivors would be newly eligible for DIC under an identical bill. This would have cost $15 million during the ten-year period from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2013. The cost would be slightly greater today as DIC payments are adjusted annually for increases in the cost of living.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you for the opportunity to come before you today and testify on this legislation that I think is very important to our veterans, but particularly to surviving spouses of POWs. And I would be willing to answer any questions that the Chair or the Members of the Subcommittee might have.
[The statement of Mr. Holden appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Holden.
It seems to make eminent sense to me as your statement says to treat surviving spouses of all qualifying former POWs equally.
I have no questions, other than the figure of 480 survivors that was given by CBO in 2003. You say that no more than a third or about 160 of these would be eligible under the bill. I assume that every year that goes by that number drops. What we are talking about here is catching the last of those who have been unjustly ignored so far and providing for them for the remainder of their lives.
Mr. HOLDEN. You are correct, Mr. Chairman, that number would decrease. But the cost of living adjustments would make the number not 100 percent accurate from the last time we had it scored.
Mr. HALL. Right. Okay.
Mr. Bilirakis, would you like to ask Mr. Holden any questions?
Mr. BILIRAKIS. I do not really have any questions, but I am strongly behind this bill. As a matter of fact, we had some constituents, actually my dad's constituents at the time, but I was also representing that area in the legislature, and I believe Wayne Hitchcock was the National Commander of the POWs and his wife who had just passed away, let us pass this in their memory. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Mr. Hare, do you have a statement or question?
Mr. HARE. No questions. I just want to thank you, Mr. Holden, for your tenacity and staying with this. It is a great bill.
All three of these are from our perspective, what we have been trying to do here, and I think very well, is to honor the sacrifice and commitment our veterans have had.
And this bill certainly goes a long way towards helping the spouses. It is just too bad it has taken us long to get here, but I promise you we will do everything we can to get this bill out and get it on the floor, get it passed, and get some fairness back to this.
So thanks very much.
Mr. HOLDEN. Thank you.
Mr. HARE. Thank you very much, Mr. Bilirakis, for your bill. I think it is a tremendous piece of legislation. And, again, we just have to keep plugging hard here, but I think we have made great progress for our Nation's veterans, but we have got a lot more work to do.
So thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Let me just say that I am elated because I have been on this Committee for some time now and for the longest time, we could not pull these off. So I want to congratulate you for staying there and doing the right thing. And hopefully we will get this thing out there and some of the other bills that are on line that we should have done a long time ago.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Holden. I appreciate your work on this bill. There are no further questions.
Mr. HOLDEN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. You are excused.
Mr. HOLDEN. Thank you, Members of the Subcommittee, for your attention. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Our pleasure.
And panel two will now be invited to the table, recognizing Norman Bussel, National Service Officer of the American Ex-Prisoners of War Service Foundation; Jim King, Executive Director of the American Veterans, AMVETS; Sharon Hodge, Association Director of Government Affairs, Vietnam Veterans of America; Steve Smithson, Deputy Director of Claims Services, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission from the American Legion; Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, Member of the Government Relations Committee, Gold Star Wives of America; Meredith Beck, National Policy Director of the Wounded Warrior Project; and Todd Bowers, Director of Government Affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Thank you all for being here and the Chair first recognizes Mr. Norman Bussel, who happens to be from my district and I welcome you here, sir. Thank you. Thank you all for your service. We will recognize Mr. Bussel for five minutes. Your written statement will be entered in the record if you want to deviate. Push the button on that microphone and get close to it if you can, please.
STATEMENTS OF NORMAN BUSSEL, NATIONAL SERVICE OFFICER, AMERICAN EX-PRISONERS OF WAR; JIM KING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, AMERICAN VETERANS (AMVETS); SHARON HODGE, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS, VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA; STEVE SMITHSON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF CLAIMS SERVICES, VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION, AMERICAN LEGION; VIVIANNE CISNEROS WERSEL, MEMBER, GOVERNMENT RELATIONS COMMITTEE, GOLD STAR WIVES OF AMERICA, INC.; MEREDITH BECK, NATIONAL POLICY DIRECTOR, WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT; AND TODD BOWERS, DIRECTOR OF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA
Mr. BUSSEL. Chairman Hall and Members of the Subcommittee, I am a National Service Officer accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs and I represent the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. I am a volunteer and I assist veterans who wish to file claims for service-connected disabilities.
As a member of a B-17 bomber crew, I bailed out over Berlin on April 29th, 1944. Four members of my crew, as close to me as my brother, died on that mission and I became a POW for just over one year.
I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My comments will focus on H.R. 156 because time is so crucial to those whom this bill will affect. H.R. 156 is designed to correct an oversight that results in a hardship for some survivors of former prisoners of war.
Prior to September 30th, 1999, a POW must have died of a service-connected disability or have been rated 100 percent disabled for a minimum of ten years, before his death for his spouse to qualify for dependency and indemnity compensation benefits (DIC).
When a bill was passed lowering the qualification period from ten years to one year, it did not retroactively include those survivors of POWs who died before September 30, 1999. This is an inequity that passage of H.R. 156 will correct.
What this involves is the plight of POW widows who are presently ineligible to file for DIC benefits because of a technicality, so let me explain why these survivors are so deserving of your consideration.
When POWs return home, they left behind the barbed-wire fence that confined them, but they could not shake off the emotional baggage that would reshape their lives. Physical wounds heal—psychic wounds are forever. These are the wounds that plague our days, the wounds that haunt our nights, the wounds that torment our dreams.
Our hope of picking up our lives where we left off was very difficult, because we were not the same people. Nobody understood what it was like to be beaten, starved, constantly threatened. Our families, neighbors, coworkers, even our mental health counselors couldn't comprehend the horrors we'd endured.
So we didn't talk about our problems, about our feelings. We sucked it up and tried to lead productive lives.
The VA was not prepared to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) back then. In fact, the term PTSD was not even coined until 1980.The sophisticated psychotropic drugs that help patients now were still waiting to be invented. For many POWs, the medication of choice became alcohol, which offered temporary relief today but even deeper depression tomorrow.
Most of us went back to work or returned to school, got married and raised families. But we could not escape the POW curses of hyper vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, and irritability. And who was most affected by our aberrant behavior? Our wives, of course. At times, living with a POW can be a tremendous challenge. A POW friend calls POW wives "Our Angels." And they are indeed. Without them, many of us would not have reached our eighties.
Like all other husbands, POWs desire to leave their wives financially secure, but this is not always possible. Many of us were liable to achieve our earning potential because we could not control our psychological demons. POW wives often became the primary income producers in the household and because of the difference in earning power, some families lived from paycheck to paycheck.
It wasn't until a few years ago, when I became a National Service Officer and began filing benefit claims for veterans and the survivors of veterans that I became aware that some POW widows were in dire financial circumstances. A number of them had to swallow their pride and apply for food stamps. Being approved for DIC benefits is not winning the lottery and $1,067 per month will not permit extravagance. But, along with Social Security, it might just be enough to bridge the gap between poverty and peace of mind.
When compared with almost every other line item in the VA budget, the cost of correcting this error is trivial. In 2003, based on the number of survivors the VA reported were awarded DIC upon the death of a former POW spouse after September 30, 1999, CBO extrapolated that about 480 survivors would be eligible for compensation with the amendment of Title 38. CBO further estimated that no more than one-third, or about 160 of those eligible, would apply for DIC.
In 2003, the CBO estimated it would cost $15 million in the ten-year period from FY 2004 through FY 2013 if the bill was enacted that year. Because the number of surviving spouses who were denied DIC under the ten-year rule has dwindled over the past four years, the cost of H.R. 156 is now likely to be less than $1.5 million a year, decreasing to about zero by 2015.
In October 2004, then VA Secretary Anthony Principi was instrumental in adding two POW presumptives to illnesses which the VA considered service-connected: heart disease and stroke. These illnesses were presumed to have resulted from the rigors of being a POW. Since heart disease ranks as the Number 1 killer in America, widows who were previously ineligible to receive DIC under the 10-year clause now become eligible to file if their husbands died of heart disease or stroke. Today, four years later, that CBO estimated number of 160 widows has obviously dropped even more, since some of them would already be eligible under the new heart disease presumptive and some widows, of course, would have passed away in the meantime.
This bill cries out for passage because these widows whose POWs husbands, in the throes of PTSD were unable to provide for their future, cannot survive on Social Security. DIC benefits are $1,067 per month will never build a portfolio that will make them wealthy, but it can help them pay the light bill or the rent and maybe live out their final years without constant anxiety.
POWs suffered enough anxiety when they were captured while fighting for their country. They would be happy to know that their government is fulfilling Abraham Lincoln's pledge: "To care for him whom shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
[The statement of Mr. Bussel appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Bussel, for your eloquent and moving testimony.
I now recognize Mr. King for five minutes, and your written statement is also in the record.
Mr. KING. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to offer testimony on behalf of the American Veterans (AMVETS) regarding pending benefits legislation before this Subcommittee.
AMVETS appreciates the Subcommittee's work to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs can fulfill its obligation to provide benefits and services to veterans and/or their survivors.
The Department of Veterans Affair Servicemember Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Protection Program is designed to provide financial protection with payments that range from $25,000 to $100,000 to servicemembers who have suffered certain traumatic injuries while on active duty.
Though the insurance program started December 1st, 2005, benefits are payable retroactive to October 7, 2001, for servicemembers and veterans who suffered certain traumatic injuries while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Mr. Chairman, the purpose and intent of any insurance program is to provide some type of financial security for either an individual or surviving family members in the event of injury, disability, or death. When or where deaths or injuries occur is usually not an impediment to the distribution of benefits.
Service personnel are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Equally important, service personnel serve where they are directed to serve and not given a choice on how or where they will serve.
AMVETS believes the guiding principles and purpose that govern Servicemen's Group Life Insurance or providing full coverage regardless of duty location should also be used as a basis for administering the TSGLI Program. We support H.R. 585.
H.R. 156 would provide survivor benefits to family members of all servicemembers who were held as prisoners of war and whose death is viewed as a service-connected death and were rated totally disabled for a period of no less than one year prior to their death.
Mr. Chairman, this legislation would provide survivor benefits to family members of prisoners of war who became rated 100 percent disabled for one year prior to death. This legislation removes an arbitrary date allowing families to receive benefits they were previously denied, and AMVETS supports this legislation.
H.R. 704 would reduce the age from 57 to 55 when a surviving spouse of a deceased veteran can remarry and not lose their dependency and indemnity compensation.
AMVETS believes DIC should not be viewed only as a source of income to replace the wage that was being provided the servicemembers. DIC is compensation for a loss that was suffered by the survivors. It should continue to be paid regardless of the marital status of a surviving spouse.
Mr. Chairman, AMVETS supports this legislation, and this, sir, concludes my testimony, and thank you for your time.
[The statement of Mr. King appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. King.
And the Chair now recognizes for her testimony Sharon Hodge from Vietnam Veterans of America.
Ms. HODGE. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Lamborn, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America the opportunity to testify to you today on the benefits legislation that would enhance the lives of men and women in the current theater operations and those who have left loved ones behind.
You have our statement in front of you and our support of all three bills. I just am quite moved by Mr. Bussel's testimony that I am kind of lost for words, you know. It is so uplifting.
H.R. 585 would amend Title 38 and expand the TSGLI benefits. VVA fully supports the bill.
We know that when Congress passed important legislation last year, it did not take into consideration that even training for war is a dangerous business in itself and whether you are stationed in an active combat zone should not exclude a servicemember from the most important benefit.
Nonbattle wounds can range from injuries in vehicles, accidents, to illness. We feel that whenever the injury or death of servicemembers occurs, the effect on the servicemembers' families are the same. And the impact in terms of the fighting force and future demands on the VA are also the same. VVA is in favor of removing the restrictions on this legislation.
Regarding H.R. 156, we support providing the DIC indemnity of survivors of former prisoners of war who died before September the 30th. We support removing the restriction on the current law that provides DIC benefits only to surviving spouses of eligible POWs who died after September the 30th.
We feel that the establishment of this date left many widows with unresolved cases penalized due to this cutoff. This legislation would treat all surviving spouses of POWs equally and grant them DIC benefits regardless of when their POW spouses passed away.
Mr. Chairman, these former POWs and their families have clearly sacrificed greatly for our Nation and easing the financial burdens of the surviving spouses is a very appropriate means of trying to repay this debt. And, again, VVA fully supports this legislation.
H.R. 704 would reduce the age of 57 to 55 for the remarrying of the surviving spouses of deceased veterans. VVA commends this Committee for previous legislation which allowed retention of DIC burial benefits, burial entitlements, and VA home loan eligibility for surviving spouses who remarry after age 57.
We strongly recommend the age 57 DIC remarry provisions be reduced to age 55 to make it consistent with all Federal survivor benefit programs, and we fully support passage of H.R. 704. We testified strongly for this when Congress lowered the age to 57 and VVA still believes that this is the appropriate age.
Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, that concludes my formal statement. I will welcome your comments and will be pleased to answer any questions.
I also would like to personally thank the Gold Star Wives of America for all their advocacy on the part of the widows and their spouses. I know that for without all of their hard advocacy, a lot of the age restrictions and requirements regarding our widows would not be enacted if it was not for their hard-thought advocacy.
Again, thank you.
[The statement of Ms. Hodge appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Hodge, for your testimony. I echo your words about Mr. Bussel's testimony. I was trying to remember to get him to repeat for us the line about physical wounds heal, but psychological wounds last forever as I have never heard it put exactly that way before.
It is now my pleasure to recognize Mr. Steve Smithson, the Deputy Director of Claims Services, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission of the American Legion, for five minutes. And your written remarks are entered into the record.
Mr. SMITHSON. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to present our views on the three bills being considered by the Subcommittee today.
It is the position of the American Legion that the bills being considered, H.R. 156, H.R. 585, and H.R. 704, if enacted, would help to correct shortcomings in current law that have adversely affected certain groups of veterans and their survivors.
Currently as established by Public Law 109-13, only those who suffered a qualifying traumatic injury while serving in active duty in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom during the period of October 7, 2001, through November 30th, 2005, are eligible to receive retroactive benefit payments under the Traumatic Injury Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Program.
H.R. 585 would eliminate the requirement that only those traumatic injuries and losses occurring from service directly in OIF or OEF would qualify for such retroactive benefits and would open this group to all servicemembers on active-duty status during the retroactive period regardless of where the traumatic injury occurred.
The American Legion fully supports the intent of H.R. 585. It has always been the position of the American Legion that veterans benefits entitlements should apply equally to all those with honorable military service. Military service is inherently dangerous and the very nature of such service often exposes members to hazard of life and limb regardless of the circumstances or location of such service.
The American Legion does not support the creation of different classes of veterans for purposes of different levels or types of veterans benefits. We, therefore, believe that H.R. 585 should proceed successfully through the legislative process and be enacted into law.
H.R. 704 would reduce from age 57 to age 55 the age after which the remarriage of the surviving spouse of a deceased veteran shall not result in termination of dependency and indemnity compensation otherwise payable to that surviving spouse. The American Legion fully supports removing the bar on the payment of DIC benefits to surviving spouses who remarry after age 55.
Public Law 108-83 provided that DIC benefits would not be terminated if the surviving spouse remarried at age 57. It is the position of the American Legion that the use of age 57 was not based on any objective data, but was simply a budget savings tool rather than opting for age 55.
The American Legion has continued to support legislation to remove the remarriage penalty for those surviving spouses age 55 or older who would otherwise have been entitled to DIC. This would better align DIC benefits with similar benefits provided by other government programs.
The American Legion also supports a provision that would allow surviving spouses who remarried at age 55 or older prior to the enactment of the law and whose benefit had been terminated the opportunity to apply for reinstatement of benefits.
We understand that it is the intent to provide the aforementioned individuals the opportunity to apply for reinstatement under the application for benefits section of this bill and we ask that the appropriate technical correction be made in order for this to happen.
The American Legion also urges the inclusion of a provision that directs VA to conduct specific outreach to inform those eligible for reinstatement of DIC benefits under this law of the opportunity to apply for reinstatement.
We also recommend providing at least a two-year period after the enactment of the law in which such individuals may apply for reinstatement. Limiting the reinstatement period to only one year is overly restrictive and would prevent otherwise eligible individuals from reestablishing entitlement to DIC because of missing an overly restrictive and arbitrarily imposed deadline.
Under the current law, survivors of former POWs who died after September 30th, 1999, and were continually rated totally disabled due to a service-connected disability for a period of not less than one year immediately preceding death are eligible to receive DIC benefits.
Survivors of such former POWs are not eligible to receive DIC benefits if the former POW died on or before September 30th, 1999.
The American Legion fully supports H.R. 156 as it would, if enacted, eliminate the arbitrary delimiting date currently in place and establish eligibility to DIC benefits for survivors of former POWs who were totally service-connected disabled for at least a year prior to death no matter the date of the individual's death.
This concludes my statement, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy to answer any questions you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.
[The statement of Mr. Smithson appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Smithson.
And as I mentioned before, I have a double booking and I am going to have to leave to go to another Committee meeting, but I will ask my colleague, Mr. Hare, to assume the chairmanship for the remainder of the hearing, and he will recognize Ms. Wersel.
Thank you all very much for your service and for your presence and testimony.
Ms. WERSEL. Hi. Can you hear me?
Mr. HARE. [Presiding] I sure can. Thank you very much.
Ms. WERSEL. Good. Yes. I am an audiologist. I just need to make sure everyone can hear.
Before I start, I would like to recognize my children, Richard, age 16, and Katie, age 14, who accompanied me today from Emerald Isle, North Carolina. They are here in the audience.
Mr. HARE. Would you have them stand, please. Would you mind standing for a second?
Ms. WERSEL. Can you stand.
Mr. HARE. Can you stand for a second?
Ms. WERSEL. Also, the Gold Star Wives of America that are here for my support, thank you.
Mr. HARE. Thank you for coming.
Ms. WERSEL. Good afternoon. Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of all Gold Star Wives regarding H.R. 704.
This bill amends Title 38 to reduce from age 57 to 55 the age after which a surviving spouse may remarry and still retain dependency and indemnity compensation.
My name is Vivianne Wersel. I am the widow of United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Rich Wersel who died February 4th, 2005, a week after returning from his second tour in Iraq.
My husband's unexpected and untimely death at the age of 43 was a tragedy for my children, Richard, then age 14, Katie, age 12, and me. I have spent the past two years grieving, helping my children with their grief, and working to end survivor inequities so that we as military survivors can move on with our journeys in life.
Presently remarriage before the age of 57 results in the termination of the DIC benefit for surviving military spouses. I have been employed as an audiologist since 1989, yet I have not earned a retirement since I have had to change jobs with each of the nine duty stations we were assigned during our 15 years of marriage.
To maintain my profession, I have been forced to take grueling licensure examinations in five States when this is typically only done once in one's career. My limited time with each job kept me from accruing significant leave, obtaining seniority, and earning tenure.
At times, I could not work because we lived out of the country and at times forced to resign the most perfect job so that I could accompany my husband and support him at our next duty station. These sacrifices apply to all military spouses widowed or not.
My primary job, however, was with the Marine Corps as a good Marine Corps wife, maintaining family unity and family readiness. There was a never a question about staying behind when a new assignment arose simply so I could continue working to earn a retirement package.
The Marine Corps was our life. We were a team. I considered myself vested in the Marine Corps when I left my job after job to follow my husband after we married. The Marine Corps is still my family.
My husband's pension would have been based on his hard work as a Marine Corps officer and also mine as a supporting spouse who raised our family when he was so often deployed.
Lieutenant Colonel Rich Wersel paid for these benefits with his life and after serving his country for 20 years. Why would they be taken away prematurely?
After I buried my husband, my daughter asked me if I would ever marry again. I knew even then I would lose my benefits and could not afford it for the sake of the family.
I choose to stay alone as remarrying would cost me my DIC. It is not fair that a law dictates whether someone can remarry and still retain her survivor benefit or not. A military widow has given so much and should not be precluded from remarrying based on financial circumstances.
It has been two years since my husband's death and I am now out of my fog of grief. I reflect on how bizarre it is that anyone should have to wait until a certain age to find a partner again and remarry. In other words, choose financial security or emotional one. We should not have to choose.
My children will still be in college when I am 55 and with no Social Security, I will still need to provide for them. Losing my DIC will have an adverse effect on my family's optimal well-being. I will still be the mother of his children raising them as Wersels if I should remarry before 57.
Excuse me. My husband would never have thought a second marriage would compromise the quality of our lives. His advice to me in the event of his death was go straight to the VA because there are good benefits available to me. The quality of life for my children should not be diminished simply because of a decision I might make to remarry.
My personal situation is simply an example. A surviving spouse should not have to be forced to hide relationships or perhaps live in sin based on inequity unique only to surviving military spouses.
I believe if military spouses had a union, we would mirror other Federal programs that allow survivors to maintain their DIC benefits at age 55. Actually, we fall into a category of our own which denies us the right to remarry before 57 without losing our DIC benefit.
I am not asking for anything more that you offer other Federal survivor benefits of nonmilitary employment. The CIA offers their survivors with continued annuity and remarriage at age 55. Our survivor benefits should align with other Federal agencies.
I work diligently with Gold Star Wives to assure that our fallen heroes' survivors are not left behind or forgotten. We support H.R. 704 which allows widows to remarry at age 55 without suffering the loss of the survivor benefit which allows you to continue with your DIC.
Please show these survivors you care and will not forget their sacrifice. Those who would benefit from this bill are those who are retired or preparing to retire, those living on a fixed income, those like me who have foregone continuous careers in which to build their own retirement in order to support the military spouses and family.
We urge you to do what is right and get this legislation enacted into law. I wish to thank the Subcommittee for having this hearing and allowing me to testify in support of H.R. 704. And I am happy to answer any questions you may have about this important piece of legislation. Thank you.
[The statement of Ms. Wersel appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HARE. Thank you very much for some very compelling and difficult testimony. And let me assure you that Chairman Hall and I think everybody on this Subcommittee shares the concerns that you have expressed and we are going to do our very best to see that we can get this corrected and corrected quickly. It is very discriminatory.
Our next witness is—just want to make sure I have got everybody's title correctly. This is what you get when you are the designated hitter—is Meredith Beck who is National Policy Director for the Wounded Warrior Project. Did I get that correct?
Ms. BECK. Yes, sir.
Mr. HARE. Thank you, Ms. Beck
Ms. BECK. Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. My name is Meredith Beck and I am the National Policy Director for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to assisting the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who have been severely injured during the War on Terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots around the world.
Beginning at the bedside of the severely wounded, WWP provides programs and services designed to ease the burdens of these heroes and their families, aid in the recovery process, and smooth the transition back to civilian life. We strive to fill the vital need for a coordinated, united effort to enable wounded veterans to aid and assist each other and to readjust to civilian life.
As a result of our direct daily contact with these wounded warriors, we have gained the unique perspective on their needs and the obstacles they face as they attempt to reintegrate into their respective communities.
I would like to specifically address H.R. 585 introduced by Representative Herseth Sandlin to expand the number of individuals qualifying for retroactive benefits under the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance.
One of our finest achievements as an organization was the role we played in the creation of this insurance program which pays up to $100,000 to severely-wounded servicemembers for immediate expenses following their injuries.
WWP is still amazed by the speed with which this legislation was introduced and passed, approximately five weeks, and we are especially pleased the program has paid over $200 million to injured servicemembers.
Once the original legislation was enacted creating the program, the lion's share of the work done on developing and implementing it was done by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Servicemember Group Life Insurance as well as by the Department of Defense.
WWP cannot speak highly enough of all the time and effort that has gone into creating this program and I would like to publicly thank all of those involved on the agency's behalf, of the severely-injured servicemembers and their families who in their time of greatest need have had many of their financial fears allayed as a result of these insurance payments.
While WWP is very pleased with the overall implementation of the TSGLI Program, H.R. 585 would correct one major inequity. As currently written, the regulation dictates that those injured after December 1st, 2005, are covered regardless of where their injuries occurred. In order for a retroactive injury to be covered, however, it must have occurred in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom.
It then defines "in Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom" to mean that the servicemember must have been injured while deployed outside the United States on orders in support of Operations Enduring or Iraqi Freedoms or served in a geographic location that qualified the servicemember for the combat zone tax exclusion.
By defining the terms as such, the regulation has disqualified a number of traumatically-injured servicemembers from payment based solely on their location at the time their injury was incurred.
WWP believes that the same criteria that apply to prospective injuries should also apply to retroactive injuries to October 7, 2001. It is inequitable to deny retroactive payments to those who have suffered the same grievous injuries based solely on the location where the traumatic event took place.
Without corrective action, brave men and women who were traumatically injured after October 7, 2001, but before December 1st, 2005, will continue to be denied the same retroactive payment given to their wounded comrades even though the servicemembers group life insurance for which TSGLI's rider was made retroactive.
Brave men and women like Navy Seal Toshiro Carrington who was injured in a training accident at Camp Pendleton on December 15th, 2004, after having returned from Iraq, he was holding a charge in his left hand when another servicemember accidentally detonated it.
SO 1 Carrington was left with a traumatically-severed left hand, a severed right tip of his thumb, and his remaining fingers all fractured. Unfortunately, Toshiro's severe injuries did not qualify him for a payment under TSGLI due to the date on which the accident occurred.
As mentioned by Representative Herseth Sandlin, another servicemember, Seaman Robert Roeder, was injured on January 29th, 2005, when an arresting wire on aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk severed his left leg below the knee. Seaman Roeder was on his way to the Gulf of Arabia when his injury occurred during flight training operations. Although the ship was on the way to the Gulf and the training exercises being conducted were in preparation for action in either Iraq or Enduring Iraqi Freedom, Robert's injury does not qualify for payment under the law as written.
Robert was hospitalized at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, for over a year and his recovery and rehabilitation have been just as strenuous as it would have been had his ship made it to the Gulf of Arabia prior to this injury.
SO 1 Carrington and Seaman Roeder are not the only wounded servicemembers being impacted by this inequity in the regulation. Therefore, we applaud Representative Herseth Sandlin for her recognition of this inequity and strongly urge Congress to quickly act on H.R. 585 so that Seaman Roeder, SO 1 Carrington, and other wounded warriors like them will not be deprived of this vitally important insurance program.
I would also like to point out separate from my testimony that these servicemembers are paying for the insurance program. A dollar is taken out of their paycheck every month along with their SGLI payments. So ultimately the program will pay for itself as we reduce the number of wounded.
Again, WWP is very pleased with the overall implementation of the TSGLI Program and is very grateful for all of the hard work that has gone into making this program a reality. I cannot overstate how many people