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Witness Testimony of Ms. Sharon Hodge, Vietnam Veterans of America, Associate Director of Government Affairs

Good afternoon, Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborne and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) the opportunity to offer our comments regarding pending benefits legislation that would enhance the lives of the men and women serving in the current theater of operations and those who have left love ones behind in previous wars.

H.R. 585- to amend title 38 US Code, to expand the number of individuals qualifying for retroactive benefits from traumatic injury protection coverage under Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. 

P.L. 109-233, the Veterans Housing Opportunity and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006, mandated that The Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (TSGLI) be retroactive to October 7, 2001, for members who incur a qualifying loss as a direct result of injuries incurred on or after October 7, 2001, through and including November 30, 2005, in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This means that the service member must have been deployed outside the United States on orders in support of OEF or OIF or serving in a geographic location that qualified the service member for the Combat Zone Tax Exclusion under the Internal Revenue Service Code.  However, when Congress passed this important legislation last year they did not take into consideration that even training for war is a dangerous business in itself. Whether or not you are stationed in an active combat zone should not exclude a service member from this most important benefit.  Non-battle wounds can range from injuries in vehicle accidents to illnesses. As an example, an Air Force pilot was killed last week in simulated close air combat over Alaska. Every time a unit goes to 29 Palms to train in desert warfare someone is seriously injured because training for war is sometimes almost as dangerous as war itself.

Wherever the injury or death of a service member occurs, the effects on the service member’s families are the same. And the impact in terms of the current fighting force and future demands on the VA are also the same."   VVA is in favor of removing the restriction on this legislation.

H.R. 156, to amend title 38 US Code, to provide payment of dependency and indemnity compensation to the survivors of former prisoners of war who died on or before September 30, 1999, under the same eligibility conditions as apply to payment of dependenency and indemnity compensation to the survivors of former prisoner of war who died after the date. 

Current law provides DIC benefits only to surviving spouses of eligible POWs who died after September 30, 1999. Before 1999, surviving spouses of POWs were eligible for DIC benefits providing the POW was rated 100% disabled for a minimum of 10 years prior to the POW’s passing. Due to unresolved eligibility issues, many POWs passed away prior to being considered 100% disabled for ten years. This problem was addressed by enactment of the Veteran’s Millennium Healthcare Act of 1999, which allowed surviving spouses to qualify for DIC benefits if their POW spouse was rated 100% disabled for at least one year and died after September 30, 1999.  However, 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 spouse passed away.

Mr. Chairman, these former POW’s, and their families, have clearly sacrificed greatly for our nation.  Easing the financial burdens of their surviving spouses is a very appropriate means of trying to repay this debt.   VVA fully supports this legislation

H.R. 704, to amend title 38, US Code, to reduce from age 57 to age 55 the age after which the remarried of the surviving spouse of a deceased veterans shall not result in termination of dependency and indemnity compensation otherwise payable to that surviving spouse.

VVA commends this committee for previous legislation, which allowed retention of DIC, burial entitlements, and VA home loan eligibility for surviving spouses who remarry after age 57. The majority of the surviving spouses are in fact women who are nearing retirement age, or have been retired for some time if they ever worked outside the home. In many cases these women devoted themselves to taking care of their spouse who was profoundly disabled, and therefore did not have the opportunity to build a career as a result.

While DIC is frankly inadequate to be able to support an adult in most of the country, these spouses deserve DIC to recognize their sacrifice and service to their country by means of caring for profoundly disabled veterans.   We strongly recommend the age 57 DIC remarriage provision be reduced to age-55 to make it consistent with all other federal survivor benefit programs and fully support passage of HR. 704. VVA testified strongly for this when the Congress lowered the age to 57, and VVA still believes this is the appropriate age.

Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members of this subcommittee that concludes VVA’s formal statement. I welcome your comments, and will be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Again, on behalf of VVA National President John Rowan, the VVA National Board of Directors, and our membership, thank you for allowing VVA to appear here today to share our views.