WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, introduced legislation Tuesday to remove documentation barriers that in some cases prevent combat veterans from receiving compensation for their disabilities. The "Compensation for Combat Veterans Act," would provide that evidence in a veteran's record of assignment in a combat zone shall be sufficient for a veteran to prove his or her combat service, when other military documents are unavailable.
Chairman Akaka said: "Veterans should never be denied compensation for disabilities sustained in combat areas because the military failed to make or maintain adequate records. I urge my colleagues to support this legislation so all combat veterans can receive the compensation they are entitled to and deserve."
Oversight investigations by the Committee on Veterans' Affairs found that veterans are being delayed or denied compensation for combat injuries because they are unable to produce official military documentation proving their personal participation in a specific combat incident. These veterans include a Marine injured in Iraq by an IED blast, a veteran accidentally shot by a fellow servicemember in Iraq, and a Vietnam Army Infantryman who served in the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Chairman Akaka's floor statement on the Compensation for Combat Veterans Act is copied below:
MR. AKAKA. Mr. President, today I introduce the proposed "Compensation for Combat Veterans Act." This legislation would remove a barrier to the fair adjudication of claims for VA benefits filed by veterans who have disabilities incurred or aggravated by their military service in combat areas. Under existing law, veterans who can establish that they served in combat do not have to produce official military records to support their claim for disabilities related to that service.
At present, some veterans, disabled by their service in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who served earlier in Korea and Vietnam, are unable to benefit from this liberalizing evidentiary requirement because they have difficulty proving personal participation in combat by official military documents.
Under an opinion of the Department of Veterans Affairs General Counsel, VA GC Opinion 12-99, veterans must establish by official military records or decorations that they "personally participated in events constituting an actual fight or encounter with a military foe or hostile unit or instrumentality." Oversight visits by Committee staff to VA regional offices have found claims denied as a result of this policy because those who served in combat zones were not able to produce official documentation of their personal participation in an actual fight from official military sources.
Some of these cases include a Marine Combat Engineer serving in Iraq who was exposed to IED's, an Army veteran accidently shot in Iraq by a fellow servicemember, and an Army Infantryman whose records showed participation in the Tet offensive of 1968, but not "personal participation in an actual fight." In other cases, extensive delays in claims processing occur while VA adjudicators attempt to obtain official military documents showing that a Marine who served in Bagdad or Fallujah was personally exposed to IED's.
The legislation I am introducing would overturn the General Counsel precedent opinion. I believe that the requirement in that opinion is inconsistent with the original intent of Congress in liberalizing the requirements for proof of service-connection in cases involving veterans who served in combat areas. As the Senate noted in 1941, in the report on the original bill providing special consideration for combat veterans:
the absence of an official record of care or treatment in many of such cases is readily explained by the conditions surrounding the service of combat veterans. It was emphasized in the hearings that the establishment of records of care or treatment of veterans in other than combat areas, and particularly in the States, was a comparatively simple matter as compared with the veteran who served in combat. Either the veteran attempted to carry on despite his disability to avoid having a record made lest he might be separated from his organization or, as in many cases, the records themselves were lost.
S. Rep. 77- 902 to H.R. 4905 at 2.
While some improvements have been made since 1941 in obtaining and maintaining records in combat areas, record keeping and transmittal of records in combat areas remains problematic.
This bill would require that, in cases in which the veteran can demonstrate service in a recognized combat area and alleges disabilities related to that service in a combat area, the relaxed evidentiary principles intended by the Congress would apply, with no requirement for further evidence from the veteran regarding his or her specific activity.
I urge all of my colleagues to support this measure, so that combat veterans of the current conflicts as well as those who served in earlier conflicts can receive the benefits they deserve in a timely manner.