Michael H. Oklak is about to get a retirement check for the first time since shortly after he left the Army in 1985. For that, the Vietnam veteran can thank a bidding contest between Democrats and Republicans for the votes of an influential segment of the electorate: military families.
On Dec. 6, 1969, Oklak earned his Purple Heart under fire in the Mekong Delta. Shrapnel tore into the soldier's left knee and left arm, and he dislocated his right shoulder leaping away from the blast. Despite his wounds, Oklak reenlisted repeatedly before retiring after 20 years at the rank of chief warrant officer.
Still, the 61-year-old doesn't get the sort of retirement pension that most other federal employees would have earned after two decades of service. Instead, the government compensates him monthly for service-related disabilities that have worsened with time.
Since the 19th century, federal law has essentially barred veterans from collecting full military retirement with disability pay. But that is changing as politicians rush to support all troops, past and present, at a time when the generations that fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are dying and a new group of disabled veterans is emerging from the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, a federal program is quietly underway to expand benefits for certain military retirees, like Oklak, wounded in combat. And today, the Senate plans to observe Veterans Day by giving final congressional approval to a bill that would partially repeal a 19th century law prohibiting "concurrent receipt" of disability and retirement pay. President Bush is considered certain to sign the bill.
As a result, the monthly income of an estimated quarter-million disabled veterans is likely to rise Jan. 1.
Oklak is one. He collected retirement for a few months after leaving the military, but those payments abruptly stopped as soon as he began receiving tax-free disability compensation, which now amounts to about $2,200 a month. He said he looks forward to increased monthly benefits of up to $1,900.
"Sure I'm going to get helped," said Oklak, of South Bend, Ind., one of many veterans in a grass-roots campaign who have pressed lawmakers to act. "It's great. But it's been about 10, 20 years too long in coming. This was a big injustice. How would you feel after you retired, and you went to get your check, and it wasn't there? I thought it was promised to me."
Momentum for expanding veterans benefits has surged in the last two years as Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have seized on the issue to make inroads with voters Republicans consider part of their base. President Bush and his GOP congressional allies, who initially opposed a benefits expansion as too expensive, have moved to neutralize Democratic attacks and are on the verge of enacting legislation that would cost $22 billion over the next decade. The measure is part of the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), a longtime champion of veterans' benefits expansion, said passage of the legislation was "a minor miracle" after many years in which first Democrats and then Republicans allowed similar proposals to languish. He attributed the sudden burst of action in part to the 2004 presidential campaign.
"A tough election is right around the corner for all of us," Bilirakis said. "What can I say? It's politics."
Democrats charge that the benefits expansion is still too modest. They attack Republicans for failing to support a full repeal of what Democrats call the "veterans disability tax."
"Because of Democratic pressure, the Republicans have put forward a plan, but it leaves far too many veterans behind," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
About 2.5 million veterans receive disability benefits, according to Department of Veterans' Affairs spokesman Terry Jemison, including roughly 700,000 who retired with 20 or more years of service.
A law, enacted in the 1890s to contain costs stemming from the Civil War, bars most of those retirees from collecting the equivalent of a full, taxable pension with the tax-free disability benefits. But a quirk in the law allows other, nonmilitary federal employees to retire with their pensions intact if they also collect for a military service-related disability.
Advocates of "concurrent receipt" legislation contend that the current system discriminates against members of the armed forces who commit to a full 20 years of service despite their disabilities.
A 2002 law, taking effect this year, authorized special compensation for retired Purple Heart recipients and certain others with combat-related disabilities. The new measure would go even further. It would expand the combat-related special compensation program and guarantee added benefits to all military retirees, including reservists, with 20 years of qualifying service and disability ratings of at least 50% -- those with the most serious service-related injuries and illnesses.
The added benefits would grow gradually over the next decade. Still, many thousands of retirees with significant disabilities would not be eligible for the extra benefits.
Bush, in a statement last week, called the legislation "fair and responsible." One of the Democrats seeking to face him in 2004, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said Monday that he would seek as president to "change the rules so that no veteran has to choose between disability and retirement benefits." Other Democrats have taken a similar stance.