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Act addresses many concerns

By Staff
Recently I was honored to join with many South Alabama veterans in a celebration and remembrance of their many sacrifices in defense of this great country.
The parades and ceremonies of Veterans' Day were marked with speeches and tributes to the thousands of those who have worn our uniform and have fought -- and in many cases died -- to preserve our liberty and freedom.
This year's celebration, however, was also marked with news of a major legislative step taken recently in the halls of Congress.
On November 7, the House passed by a vote of 362-40 the FY 2004 National Defense Authorization Act. Along with authorizing the level of military expenditures for the next fiscal year, this legislation also includes a compromise on adjusting the inequity in disability and retirement payments.
For over 100 years, America's veterans have been faced with a significant problem. As far back as 1891, the men and women who have served us in the uniform of our country have been confronted in many instances with a disparity between their retirement benefits and -- when applicable -- their VA disability compensation.
Under current law, an individual receiving both military retired pay and disability compensation must have their retirement benefits reduced by the amount of their disability benefits.
While this practice has been defended by some as being the most affordable system, veterans organizations have countered it is an inequitable process. For many years, Congress has been looking for a way to correct this problematic system.
Certainly, this fix -- commonly known as "concurrent receipt" -- has been a long time in the making and is long overdue. Let me take just a moment to outline some of the key points in this legislation, both in terms of military spending as well as details on the concurrent receipt agreement.
The FY 2004 Defense Authorization Act addresses several areas of concern to many current members of the military and their dependents.
At a time when the men and women of our armed forces are being called to duty in dangerous areas on a daily basis -- particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq -- it is important that Congress demonstrates our strong support for their efforts and provides them with some of the support they need, both at home and abroad.
Among other things, this legislation includes:
An average base pay increase of 4.15 percent for members of the military;
An extension of special bonuses and pay for personnel serving on active duty;
A continuation of the family separation allowance for service members with dependents worldwide through the end of the next fiscal year at a level of $250 per month; and,
A continuation of the combat pay level of $225 per month through the end of the next fiscal year.
Of interest to most, however -- particularly our large veteran population -- are the details of the concurrent receipt compromise. In short, this plan includes the following eligibility criteria for receipt of both military retirement and disability compensation:
Twenty-year military retirees who have received the Purple Heart or suffer from a combat-related disability with a rating of between 10 and 100 percent;
Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) recipients with a disability rating of between 10 and 100 percent;
Members of the National Guard or reserves who have received the Purple Heart or are CRSC certified, with a disability rating of between 10 and 100 percent; or,
Military retirees with a disability rating of between 50 and 100 percent, with no Purple Heart or CRSC requirements (this particular section will be phased in over a period of ten years).
In addition to this new list of criteria for concurrent receipt, the Defense Authorization Act also authorizes a 13-member, bipartisan commission.
The purpose of this group is to review the current VA disability system and to make recommendations on ways to improve the system.
The commission will be appointed by members of both Congress and the Administration, and -- to ensure that those with first-hand knowledge of the needs of our veterans have a voice -- will include highly decorated combat veterans.
I want to take this opportunity to thank many of my constituents who contacted me during the past ten months to express their concerns and support for passage of meaningful concurrent receipt legislation.
Certainly the work put into this bill represents a great deal of commitment on members from both sides of the aisle to provide the benefits to the veterans who most deserve and need them.
This legislation as agreed to by both the House and Senate will now be sent to the president for his review and signature.
I am hopeful this will be done quickly so that we can move on to a successful conclusion to this process and rectify over 100 years of inequity shown to the men and women who have fought and sacrificed so much for this great nation.
Please call or write whenever we can be of service.