February 25, 2013

Pingree working to close loophole limiting injured veterans' benefits

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It took Chris Kotch years to physically recover from the serious injuries he suffered when an improvised explosive device struck his Army patrol vehicle in the early days of the war in Iraq.

Now, a decade later, the Brunswick resident finds himself involved in another years-long struggle against a bureaucratic technicality that he believes is costing him thousands of dollars in educational benefits intended for injured veterans.

“It’s been three years. I had to take out loans ... which I should not have had to do,” said Kotch, a husband and father pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern Maine.

By all accounts, Kotch seems like a textbook example of someone qualified for full benefits available to injured veterans under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. But Kotch and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, say a loophole in the law has resulted in Kotch — and likely other reservists — receiving only partial benefits.

By his own estimate, Kotch believes the reduced stipend alone is costing him about $600 a month — money he said he was counting on to pay for school expenses as well as gas and household bills as he attended school full-time.

“It’s not just me that this has happened to,” said Kotch, his voice still affected by the injury that severed his carotid artery. “I know there are a lot of people like me, and a lot of people who are worse off than me who can’t put up with the BS and the bureaucratic stuff to get something done.”

The issue, which Pingree hopes to fix with a bill she introduced this month, appears to be with the manner and timing of his medical retirement from the military due to his injuries.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, veterans can receive full in-state tuition and a monthly stipend if they served three years active-duty or were medically discharged due to a service-related disability after 30 days of continuous active-duty service. Veterans who do not meet those requirements are entitled to GI Bill benefits at reduced levels.

A member of the U.S. Army Reserve 94th Military Police Company, Kotch had been on active-duty deployment in Iraq for five months when the IED struck his vehicle in 2003. The injuries to his throat, shoulder and other areas were so severe that he was sent stateside to recover.

Despite his desire to stay in the reserves, Kotch was honorably released from the military due to his wounds. He waited several years but eventually left his job to attend college full time under the GI Bill with a goal of eventually receiving a master’s degree in social work.

And that’s when the paperwork issue first emerged.

Kotch was “medically retired” after he had been officially transferred back to his reserve unit, meaning he was no longer considered on active duty at the time. But to receive the full Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, veterans must receive a “medical discharge” from active duty.

Pingree has introduced a bill that would make sure that anyone who is medically separated or medically retired from the “armed forces” — rather than simply from active duty — would qualify for the full benefits. Her bill also would allow Kotch and other affected veterans to receive the full GI Bill benefits retroactively.

“Since looking into the issue, I’ve heard about other Reservists who’ve fallen into the same trap,” Pingree said in a statement.  “It’s sad to see that many have gone into student loan debt when their education should have been paid for. I hope we can make this fix so they can get the full benefits that their service and sacrifice have earned them.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareowner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta and the Morning Sentinel in Waterville.

A representative for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs reached late last week said benefits cases are highly individual but he was unable to comment on Kotch’s specific situation due to privacy laws.
Michael Dakduk, executive director of the advocacy organization Student Veterans of America, said the Post-9/11 GI Bill is so complex and nuanced that he frequently hears from veterans struggling to deal with the system.

“There are many things that need to be fixed with the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and this may be one of them,” said Dakduk, a recent veteran who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dakduk said his organization, which is active on Capitol Hill, also wants to see the VA address the backlog of claims under the GI Bill that causes lengthy delays for some veterans.

“As frustrating as it is, it is the best program that we have ever had,” he added.

For his part, Kotch said he is frustrated after three years of trying to get the full GI Bill benefits, as he believes the law intended. And he is hoping to receive those benefits retroactively.

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
kmiller@pressherald.com
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

Chellie Pingree
click image to enlarge

Chellie Pingree

Portland press Herald file photo by Joel Page

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