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A landmine isn’t combat-related?

Scott Jagow Feb 18, 2009

This week, Marketplace is paying special attention to military families. Our weekend program, Marketplace Money, airs “Debt of Service,” an hour of stories about money issues facing soldiers and veterans. On this evening’s Marketplace, reporter Jeff Tyler looks at how the military may be shortchanging people on disability benefits. The process vets have to go through is complicated and frustrating, and you’ll hear why. One thing Jeff doesn’t get into in the story that’s also an interesting issue is the new definition of “combat-related.”

Here’s what Jeff sent me about it:

Last year, the Department of Defense narrowed the scope of its definition for ‘combat related,’ restricting it to those injured in armed conflict. Prior to the change, ‘combat related’ covered most, if not all, injuries sustained in a combat zone, combat training or other hazardous service.

Kerry Baker with the Disabled American Veterans called the move, “one of the most shameful we’ve seen so far.” He says the change was likely motivated by a desire to save money. The Pentagon denies this. But they don’t offer an alternative explanation.

Last January, in an open letter to Defense Secretary Gates, 22 members of Congress asked Gates to reverse the narrow definition of ‘combat related.’ They write, “This change in policy has cost numerous veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits as they have had their injuries discounted as not being ‘combat related.'”

Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) has introduced legislation that would reinstate the old definition of ‘combat related.’

But that shouldn’t be necessary. Secretary Gates can easily return the benefits our veterans deserve with the stroke of his pen.

Just to give you one example of what’s going on here: The Los Angeles Times did a story a while back on the new definition.
The newspaper talked to a couple vets, and one of them was Marine Cpl. James Dixon. He was wounded by a roadside bomb and a landmine in Iraq. He had brain injuries, a dislocated hip and hearing loss. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His injuries were not considered combat-related.

“I was blown up twice in Iraq, and my injuries weren’t combat-related? It’s the most imbecile thing I’ve ever seen.”

Dixon actually did get the ruling overturned. But it took him six months of phone calls, appeals and letters, plus help from a member of Congress and a veterans group.

It really shouldn’t be so hard. The only logical reason for the Pentagon changing this definition is to save money. And that is a logical reason, considering what we’ve spent in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. But until we get out of these war zones, find another place to cut the budget. The men and women who’ve sacrificed their bodies in, around or near combat deserve better.

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