From MOAA’s President: Call to Restrict VA Benefits Breaks Faith With Veterans

From MOAA’s President: Call to Restrict VA Benefits Breaks Faith With Veterans
Soldiers conduct situational training exercises March 14 during Exercise Warrior Shield in South Korea. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Effie Mahugh/Army)

The American military has been an all-volunteer force for nearly 50 years, and that force has served well in protecting our American freedoms and way of life. A scant 7% of our population chooses this path of service, and our country has asked a lot of those volunteers, particularly over the last 20-plus years.


Many of our servicemembers deployed into Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations across the globe as much as six or more times. They lost brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Many were even exposed to toxic chemicals via burn pits. Nevertheless, these volunteer servicemembers continued to fulfill their commitments and serve honorably.


As we approach the 50-year anniversary of our all-volunteer force, it is disheartening to read a call to action from The Washington Post to strip away disability pay and benefits to reduce the VA's growing budget. The April 3 editorial endorses means-testing disability compensation for those harmed by their service, plucking a line item from the Congressional Budget Office biannual report that examines a wide range of cost-savings ideas. The CBO report is always eye-opening and designed to offer outside-the-box ideas many which they admit could be difficult to implement. They are correct.


[RELATED: The VA Has No Plans to Cut Off Wealthy Veterans. Here’s What You Need to Know]


Means testing is typically utilized to ensure those truly in need can receive unearned benefits like social insurance or welfare aid as part of a government grant or gift. Military and veteran health care benefits are not gifts or grants: They are earned based on the sacrifices and commitments made by volunteers and their families. We don’t means test federal medical benefits in any other part of the government, with the president paying the same premiums as the lowest-ranking civilian employee. And unless we want to disincentivize service, or disincentivize success after service, we shouldn’t means test the benefits military members and veterans have earned through their sacrifices, either.


In addition, the timing of this proposal could not be worse, and this idea would prove disastrous for preserving a military force 100% dependent on volunteers and already struggling to recruit. The newspaper's Editorial Board turns a blind eye to sacrifices made by our servicemembers and the promises made to our war veterans. Such actions would undermine landmark legislation like the PACT Act, which will provide benefit to 5 million veterans exposed to harmful and cancer-causing toxins while deployed. 


We fought the War On Terror in a new way, a protracted engagement where many of the same men and women endured multiple combat deployments. The burden of these wars was borne by a far lower percentage of our nation’s citizens than ever before. Advances in battlefield medicine mean more from the Post 9/11 generation were wounded in action, not killed in action. For those who are injured in the line of duty, they may apply for service-connected disability payments to rectify the harm received fulfilling their commitment in service to our nation.




As the CBO states, “VA paid about $110 billion in disability benefits, four times the amount that it paid in 2000 (after removing the effects of inflation).”


Missing from the report is a recognition of 20 years of war and the millions of new servicemembers, veterans, and surviving families. In 2001, we had more than 2.3 million veterans receiving disability compensation. After two decades, that figure rose to more than 5.2 million.


We also can’t discount what’s still owed to our Vietnam veterans, many whose medical ailments were only just now recognized as related to exposure to toxins.


We readily and willingly accept lawmakers must always remain positive stewards of taxpayer money. We must also be clear as to what not honoring past obligations will mean to the future of the all-volunteer force with the Post 9/11 generation now holding the biggest influence over whether or not they’ll recommend service to the next generation. How will that proposition look under means testing?


When someone raises their right hand, swearing an oath to our nation, they are offering their service in an open-ended commitment. Our nation makes a promise back. We swear that we will care for them if they are injured, attempt to make them whole for the harms of service, and care for their family if they make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation. Not that we’ll only do that if you fall below some artificial financial gate. There is an obligation and commitment made by our government that must be met.


[RELATED: MOAA's Legislative Action Center]


We should never forget, minimize, or ignore the true cost of war and the human toll we pay for our freedom. To means-test service-connected disability payments does exactly that. This attempt to balance the budget on the backs of those who serve and have served is a violation of a social contract we must dismiss outright.


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About the Author

Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, USAF (Ret)
Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, USAF (Ret)

Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, USAF (Ret), is MOAA's president and CEO. He retired from the Air Force in 2022 after more than three decades of service.