ESTERO, Fla. - A once decorated U.S. Airman, now a disabled veteran, turned to "Call for Action" for help and we're getting results. The Department of Veterans Affairs made him repay his separation benefit but in the process overcharged him thousands of dollars. Our Chief Investigator found out this may be happening to other veterans.
It may seem hard to remember a time when the U.S. military was not expanding. But in the 1990's the Department of Defense offered an incentive to leave. Malcom Martin was one of the servicemen who participated in the program. But when he became disabled, the VA wanted that money back and then some.
Malcom, who served in the United States Air Force for 13 years looks back on his time in the military with fondness saying, "It was my great honor and privilege to do so."
So with hesitance, he came to us for help when he noticed the VA had overcharged him thousands of dollars. It all started when the U.S. Military downsized in the 1990's. Malcom took a "Special Separation Benefit" or SSB as an incentive to voluntarily leave his military career and transition to civilian life. A few years after he received an Honorable Discharge, the VA declared Malcom 20-percent disabled due to his service, making him eligible for disability pay.
However, federal law states in order to get that check, SSB recipients have to pay back the thousands of dollars they received to help transition to civilian life.
"It seems shameful that the veteran has to go through that and repay all that money," said Malcom.
But that wasn't all. The VA made Malcom repay the entire amount he was awarded, including the amount the IRS took out for taxes. We contacted the VA who reviewed his file and discovered a mistake. According to federal law, separation pay is recouped at the gross amount, but the Special Separation Benefit is recouped at the post-tax amount. In Malcom's case, the VA misread his separation papers.
"Unfortunately the copy of the separation papers we received listed that on a separate block and it was very light. We made a mistake," Collette Burgess with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs admitted.
The VA issued Malcom a check for thousands of dollars. The department urges other veterans who think they have been overcharged to contact the VA to review their case as well.
"Mr. Martin's case is an illustration that mistakes do occur; however the agency has embraced the secretary's goal of reaching 98-percent accuracy on all of our decisions by 2015 and we embrace that goal and strive toward that goal and all of our employees are committed to achieving that goal," Burgess told WINK.
Malcom not only wants other veterans to know what happened to him, he also wants Congress to revisit the law requiring veterans to pay back their SSB in the first place.
"In my view, veterans when they have served with honor they want to be treated with honor once they are out of the services. They want to be treated with honor as well," he explained.
So why do these veterans have to pay it back at all? It's the law.
Most members of the military who separate with a severance package are also paid a lump sum for their disabilities; it was meant to keep them from receiving disability pay twice. But veterans who took SSB were paid for their years of active service, not their disabilities. In fact, the Disabled American Veterans actually has a resolution urging Congress to change the law. Any veteran with questions about their benefits can contact the VA at 1-800-827-1000. You can also click on this link.