RETIREMENT BENEFITS

Pension cuts put another burden in those who fought for our country

 
 
AGUIRRE FERRÉ
AGUIRRE FERRÉ

Haguirreferre@gmail.com

Military families are furious. The bipartisan budget approved by both houses of Congress cuts $6 billion in retirement benefits for veterans over the next 10 years while increasing domestic and military spending by $62 billion in the new federal budget. How ironic it is to increase military spending while decreasing funding for veterans. But then again, this is Washington D.C.

Not all, however, were in agreement. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, with others tried to restore these benefits, but to no avail. Arguing that there were other places to cut spending, such as $4.2 billion in an IRS credit that is given to benefit U.S.-born children of undocumented parents, Sessions was outmaneuvered and failed.

It is a shame Sessions led that fight, he has little credibility to do so. For years, Sessions has been unsuccessfully attempting to end what he calls a “tax credit loophole” insisting that it benefits undocumented families when it really provides assistance for American-born children regardless of their parents’ status. If he were not so anti-immigration reform, he might have thought of a better cost-saving measure than letting children go hungry. As a result, neither party joined him in his efforts.

In this bipartisan deal, cost-of-living increases for military pensions are cut 1 percentage point for non-disabled military retirees who are younger than 62 years of age. In this budget, military veterans are the only group that faces a reduction in benefits.

Military families are right to feel betrayed. They get stuck paying for increased federal spending after having served our country, something that angers Ana Castellanos.

Her husband, Raimundo, a veteran of the Vietnam War who received a Bronze Medal for valor, died in Miami in November at the age of 69. Ray, as he was known to his family and friends, was in a way a victim of friendly fire, having been exposed to Agent Orange while serving his country. Ray did not realize the impact that the deadly toxin had on him until 2001 when he was diagnosed with diabetes and peripheral neuropathy. The nerves in both legs were damaged, eventually leaving him unable to walk.

Over time, cancer enveloped his body. By 2006 Ray, a successful mortgage banker, was no longer able to work.

Although he was entitled to 100-percent veteran’s disability, it took years to get just partial disability approved.

Incredibly, his request for “permanent and total” disability, which would also provide medical coverage for Ana, was never granted. The Veterans Administration (VA) is an example of a bureaucracy at its worst. Ana is still fighting for her coverage — not just for herself but also in honor of her husband, who wanted her to have that. He paid for it with his life.

Ray’s daughter, Elsie Castellanos Valderrama, is angry but determined to fight for what is owed to her mother through her father’s shared sacrifice. “It is truly sad and disgraceful that when our country asked, these men and women responded, yet when they are in need and asking, they are so severely neglected.”

The cost issue for the federal government, of course, is not easy. Just like in law enforcement, military retirees are younger — most retire in their 40s. In 2012, the Pentagon spent more than $52 billion on veterans and their families, a number that is expected to rise over the coming years thanks in part to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Military Officers Association of America calculates that the difference in benefits will be massive over time. What particularly angers those in the military is that it applies to all whether they have served 25 years or are just enlisting. It remains to be seen if this new policy will have any effect on recruitment and retention.

The issues facing veterans and their families are complex. Dealing with physical and mental-health challenges, good medical care and the nightmare of government bureaucracy is too much for many to handle. Not for the Castellanos family, though — this fight is personal.

“I promised Ray that I would continue this fight in his name and for all the other veterans who may not have someone to fight for them,” says Ana.

Pension reform for all is coming in the public sector, but it should not have started with our veterans. They have been getting the short end of the stick for too long with poor medical care in VA hospitals, scandalously slow processing of claims and more. The frustration and abandonment that veterans and their families feel is real.

They deserve better. It will be interesting to see how they vote next year.

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