SEBRING – Kenneth Cross of Sebring spent 23 years in the United States Air Force, including serving three tours of duty in Okinawa and tours of Japan, Vietnam and England before hanging up his wings and retiring in 1983 at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Like many military veterans, Cross, who retired as a senior master sergeant E-8, shied away from being seen at the Veterans Administration hospital until lower back pain finally caused him to seek treatment.
In 2007, while living in Ames, Iowa, he found out he had severe knee, back and hearing problems resulting from loading cargo during his military career, but after examination, only received a 40 percent disability rating.
Currently under federal legislation, those with less than a 50 percent rating don’t receive military disability pay; the money is deducted from the veteran’s retirement. Those over 50 percent get disability checks.
That has prompted Cross do what he can to help push to pass the U.S. House of Representatives (HR) 303 bill introduced by U. S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Jan. 4, 2013.
The Senate (S) 344 bill, introduced Feb. 14, 2011, died in Congress.
Called the “Retired Pay Restoration Act,” the bill allows veterans to receive both military retirement pay and veterans’ compensation for a service-connected disability. It authorizes concurrent receipt of retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation regardless of disability rating.
Those with 100 percent disabilities are given full concurrent pay; those with 50 percent or higher non-combat disabilities will have disability offsets phased out this year.
Cross, who lives in Sebring with his wife, Faye, said he currently gets $2,100 military retirement per month, minus $640 disability, which is returned tax-free, resulting in nothing extra to pay for medical expenses.
He said those with a 50 percent rating and over get disability checks, and a more equitable method of assistance needs to be made.
“I want people to be aware what Congress does to our vets when they sit around and pontificate. They say one thing and do another,” said Cross, 72, who has led the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Avon Park and Sebring high schools. “To survive on $2,000 a month is tough; we’re better off than a lot of people, but we’re still below the poverty level.”
Since January 2012, Cross has written senators and representatives regarding the issue and pushing them to pass legislation to get disability compensation and military retirement at the same time for those with disability ratings of less than 50 percent. Among them have been U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla.
Rooney, U.S. representative for Florida’s 17th congressional district, said the Retired Pay Restoration Act would help bolster financing for service-related injuries and conditions, and for veterans around Florida and Highlands County, it would help those who rely on military retirement to supplement their incomes.
“We shouldn’t punish veterans who suffer from a service-connected disability by taking away from their retirement pay. Our bill stops the practice of nickel-and-diming our veterans and makes sure they get the full compensation they earned,” said Rooney, a U.S. Army JAG Corps veteran who served from 2000 to 2004 at Fort Hood, Texas.
In a Jan. 13, 2012 letter for Cross, Nelson wrote he had co-sponsored the S 344 because “for far too long, out nation’s military retirees have been unable to receive both retired pay and the disability benefits to which they are entitled.” The bill would have allowed retired veterans with disability ratings under 50 percent to get disability compensation and retirement pay concurrently.
“Retired pay and disability compensation represent two distinct benefits for a life of military service, and veterans have earned and deserve both,” he wrote.
Monday at the American Legion Post 74 in Sebring, Larry Roberts, service officer and a U.S. Army veteran of 14 years, spends his weeks showing veterans how the benefit systems work and offers classes showing them how to access resources and enroll for help.
He said HB 303 is needed to approved to keep retirement pay from affecting disability compensation pay.
“They did their 20 years and they shouldn’t be charged for something they should be getting anyway,” he said. “I’m trying to play middle guy right now because a lot of veterans don’t know when to stand up.”
Although the bill was referred to the House subcommittee Feb. 4, 2013, it remains stuck there and a date for it to reach the House floor is undetermined, according to Bilirakis’ office Monday.
There is no companion bill in the Senate right now.