Finding CRSC eligibility worth the effort

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Retired Army 1st Sgt. Arthur C. Thornburgh of Ewell, Ala., figures the Department of Defense owes him $20,000 so far in Combat-Related Special Compensation.
The missing payments, he said with evident frustration, go back to June 1, 2003, the day he applied and also the day the CRSC program began.
Thornburgh, a former helicopter crew chief who survived several combat tours in Vietnam, did receive notice March 23 that he is eligible for tax-free CRSC, based on his 70-percent disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
But after nine months, he still must wait to learn officially whether his CRSC will reflect his VA 100-percent “unemployable” rating, which would double the size of his tax-free CRSC payment to more than $2,200 a month.
Thornburgh, 68, and thousands of retirees with 20 or more years of service and severe disabilities, have seen long waits for CRSC decisions.
Particularly frustrating has been absent Defense Department guidance on CRSC for retirees deemed to be unemployable (IU) or eligible for VA’s Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) for severely debilitating injuries or illnesses.
Their concerns may be eased this month. Defense officials have promised within weeks to publish long-awaited guidance on IU and SMC. Also on the way, four months behind schedule, is a new CRSC application for an expanded pool of eligible retirees, those with 20 years of service, active or reserve, and combat-related disabilities as low as 10 percent.
Service CRSC administrators defer to Defense officials to explain why the new application and SMC/IU guidance have taken so long. Due before the Jan. 1 CRCS expansion, both documents have gone through at least three rounds of service “chops,” or reviews, to shape a department-wide consensus.
But after each round, the services learned that internal reviews, usually involving lawyers, continued.
The Bush administration’s early opposition to CRSC, or any relaxation of the ban on “concurrent receipt” of full military retirement and VA disability compensation, fuels speculation by disabled retirees that the delays involve either politics or an attempt to hold down program costs.
Arguing against that idea are Defense officials, who deny it, and the reality that CRSC payments, when they begin, are retroactive anyway, either to June 2003 for those with Purple Heart wounds and combat-related disability ratings of 60 percent or higher, or to January 2004 for retirees with combat-related disabilities of 10 to 50 percent.
Service officials say lack of SMC guidance and a new CRSC application not only have frustrated applicants but have stunted what they expected would be a tidal wave of new applicants in early 2004.
“There are 500,000 Army veterans with VA-rated injuries that could be eligible for CRSC under one of the four scenarios: direct combat, instrumentality of war, simulating war (training), and hazardous duty,” said Col. John F. Sackett, chief of the CRSC Branch in the Army Human Resources Command based in Alexandria, Va.
“We’ve only received 25,000 to date.”
The Air Force also expected a flood, and hasn’t seen it.
“We anticipated somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 folks would apply based on the new criteria,” said Col. Gary Cook, president of the Air Force Informal Physical Evaluation Board.
The Air Force has received 10,300 applications, most of them logged in before Jan. 1. That Army total also includes applications back through June.
By March, 153,000 retirees began receiving Concurrent Retirement and Disability Payments (CRDP), an automatic benefit and an option to applying for CRSC.
Service officials suspect that CRDP, paid to retirees with 20 or more years and any type of service-connected disabilities rated 50 percent or higher, has left some retirees confused about CRSC.
With the extra pay coming in, retirees might decide not to apply for CRSC, unaware they could see even higher compensation.
Some might be discouraged by the hassle of a five-page application, the need to provide supporting documents to show the combat-relation of injuries or illness, and the prospect of a long wait for a decision. But that would be a mistake.
Air Force CRSC expert Kathy Garfield said the service has been encouraging retirees for months to use the old CRSC application if they don’t want to wait for the new one. They simply can ignore, or amend by hand, references to the now out-dated “60 percent” disability threshold.
“Our biggest priority,” added Cook, “is to find people who are eligible and get them compensated.”

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com