This may be the most important series of articles you read all year. If you’re like me you may have put some thought toward what job you’ll do after you leave full-time military service, but you probably don’t have all the information or perspective you need on really important things like health care.
This is the first in a series of articles discussing the VA Disability system. We’re going to look at why the system exists, why you need to plan on applying for it, how you can receive disability benefits without jeopardizing your civilian flying career, and what you can do during your full-time military service to make sure your family receives the benefits that you’ve earned for them.
Unfortunately, this topic comes with a little bit of emotional or societal baggage, even though it shouldn’t. We’re going to do the airline thing and try to leave that baggage behind before we take off and get to the details.
Table of Contents
I hate to break it to you, but as far as the military is concerned, you are expendable.
This is actually okay…it’s how the military has to work. Each and every person who serves must be prepared to give up his or her life in the service of our country. That’s the nature of war and we knew it before we signed on the dotted line.
We even glorify this ideal somewhat. The climax of the appropriately-named movie, Glory, shows Col Robert Shaw (Matthew Borderick) leading his troops in a hopeless charge against the enemy. When Shaw falls, Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) raises the stars and stripes high. He rallies the troops and continues the charge along with Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) and Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes).
They all die and the assault fails, but I challenge even the most callous tough-guy to watch that movie without getting misty-eyed. If a military member has to die in action, he or she could hardly hope to do any better than the heroes of the 54th.
Granted, the military can’t treat all of its assets with wanton disregard. If an Air Force failed to perform proper maintenance on its aircraft, its jets would corrode away into nothing and it would lose its ability to wield Air Power. In the same way, a military has to provide for the basic needs of its people. That’s why we’re paid, housed, fed, provided with health care, and even given base services like stores, gyms, and recreation centers.
Make no mistake though, when it comes down to a question of short-term cost and convenience for the military versus your long-term well-being, the agency that’s willing to sacrifice your life for the mission isn’t going to bat an eyelash about doing something that might affect your health later in life…if you manage to survive that long.
Now that we’re clear on our own expendability, let’s look at a related topic: What is a contract?
For me, a contract is a voluntary agreement between two or more parties. Each party agrees to do or give something in exchange for something else. Ideally, all parties benefit from a contract.
Although we like to think that military service in our “all volunteer force” is altruistic, it isn’t. Money and other benefits are huge factors. So are fuzzy concepts like prestige or fulfillment. Each of us has different reasons for serving, but the point is that we serve because it benefits us in some way.
Culturally, we don’t like to admit that military service is governed by a contract. We’re supposed to serve because we’re Patriots. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t even bother to read the whole contract before you signed on.
They said, “Sign here if you want a shot at flying jets. There are a couple catches like–”
At which point I yelled, “SHUT UP AND GIVE ME THE PEN!”
Our military service contract is complicated by the fact that part of it says, “Emet agrees to abide by all regulations.” There are so many regulations in any given branch of military aviation that it would be physically impossible to read them all. (I do mean impossible. If you tried, you’d end up gouging your eyes out, rendering you physically incapable of finishing your task.) The contract also involves federal regulations outside the DOD. We’ll talk about some of these shortly.
Don’t feel bad about the fact that your military service is governed by a contract, rather than just raw Patriotism. Many people would argue that a contract is the only moral grounds on which any employment can take place. (I believe our Founding Fathers would be first in line to make that argument.) Once you agree to a contract, the only moral course of action is for both parties to honor and abide by the terms of the agreement. Anything short of that would be as illogical as it is immoral.
Let’s say you’re trying to sell your house and you have a contract for someone to buy it for $200,000. If the buyer showed up at closing and said, “Um, I changed my mind. I’m only going to give you $175,000 for this house,” you’d laugh in his face. It would be equally ridiculous for you as the seller to show up and say, “Um, I changed my mind. I’m going to sell this house to you for $185,000.” In the latter example, the buyer would want to take the deal, but everyone in the room would look at you like you were crazy. If you later told me what you’d done, I’d smack you on the side of the head and ask what is wrong with you.
For another quick example, let’s say you’re in the military and the government’s pay scales show that you should receive $50,000 in pay this year. Would you ever go to your Uncle Sam and say, “You know what, I’m just overwhelmed by patriotism. I know that our country has a heavy debt burden and I want to do my part. I’m only going to take $40,000 in pay this year. You can keep the rest”?
Of course not! If you tried, your boss would either send you for a not-so-random urinalysis to find out what you’ve been smoking or send you to mental health to get your head checked. I’d smack you upside the head again if I heard about such buffoonery. You just don’t voluntarily give up compensation that is guaranteed by a contract. It’s not in your best interest, and there’s no justification for it…not even overwhelming patriotism or civic duty.
This leads us to look more closely at a key part of any employment contract: compensation.
As military members, it’s tempting for us to think of our monthly paycheck as our only compensation, but that’s wildly inaccurate. As a mostly civilian, I’ll tell you that your free health care, housing allowance, free gym access, and more represent large and valuable parts of your overall compensation. Do you feel guilty about receiving any of those things as part of your compensation? You shouldn’t.
In AMC/Netflix’s masterpiece series Better Call Saul, the title character takes a job at a new law firm largely because of the perks…the non-monetary portions of the compensation package specified in his contract. There’s a great sequence where Jimmy McGill bids farewell to his old POS car, and brags about his new company-provided Mercedes to the ladies at the nail salon where he’d been staying.
My understanding is that it’s not at all uncommon for civilian companies to provide employees with a car as part of their compensation. Now the stupid question: Is it in any way immoral for an employee to negotiate a company car as part of his or her contract? Of course not, right? His or her employer is free to write that into the contract, or try to negotiate for something else. We’re good here.
That’s just a small example of compensation included in contracts. How about a couple more?
In the financial turmoil being caused by Coronavirus, Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory wrote a wonderfully scathing article that absolutely eviscerates several major airlines for wasting billions of dollars on stock buybacks over the past several years. If they’d saved and invested that money more responsibly, they would not have needed multi-billion-dollar bailouts from the government. We pilots wouldn’t be looking at furloughs. Airlines like Compass and TSA would not have gone out of business.
That article also illustrates how top airline executives have received (and sold) shares of stock worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the same time period. This income is entirely separate from their regular salaries. Whether you think this is good or bad (I’ve heard it both ways), it’s important to note that granting high-performing individuals increasingly large portions of ownership in a company is another common form of compensation.
We’ve already mentioned that military members receive compensation above and beyond just salary. From here on out, we’re going to look at one very specific part of our compensation: our VA Disability benefits.
To start out, we need to address some stigmas associated with the idea of a person receiving VA Disability benefits.
There are some people who think that if I am awarded a disability rating, it makes me less of a person. As if riots in the streets weren’t bad enough, it’s disappointing to know that we still discriminate based on things like physical disability. Hopefully, the fact that we have sitting members of Congress who wear their service injuries proudly shows that we’re at least improving in this area.
Before we’re done, I hope you’ll acknowledge the fact that being designated with a VA Disability rating does not make you less of a person.
We also have a tough time figuring out the morality of so-called “entitlement programs” in our country. We’re okay helping orphans, but we’d rather not help out lazy people who intentionally mooch off the system without supporting themselves. I think we’re decades away from figuring out how to handle that whole mess properly.
Military members face a similarly uncomfortable conundrum. We’re more than happy to accept our free health care while arguing that it shouldn’t be given to all other Americans. (We earned it right? Who cares how much it costs all those other pukes?) We seek out permanent housing and temporary lodging that falls below our BAH and per diem rates, hoping to pocket the rest as a tax-free bonus. (I wonder if the taxpayers understand how that works and agree with it.) We’re happy to take an extremely expensive, tax-funded pension after we complete our military service, knowing that the average American has less than $25,000 in retirement savings.
And yet, I know of many people who feel like it’s unjustified mooching to accept the monetary payments that go along with a VA Disability rating. They especially feel like this if they’re otherwise able-bodied enough to hold a job that supports their families.
Before we’re done, we’re going to see that 1) this mentality is inaccurate, and 2) the government has done the math and intends to pay you that money, even while you’re still in decent shape.
Another unproductive stigma is that if a pilot complains about health issues during military service, he or she is being a whiner. First, that attitude is downright stupid. If someone tries to shove that kind of bullshit down your throat, walk away and stop listening to anything he or she says. Second, you need to realize that this person’s moronic attitude could have significant negative impacts on the well-being of you, your spouse, and your children in the future. This person has no right to hurt your family to satisfy his or her poorly-informed, old-fashioned attitude.
One final stigma we need to address in this discussion is the idea that having a VA Disability rating could prevent you from getting a good flying job (usually with an airline) in the future. While there are a few medical conditions that will disqualify any person from getting an FAA medical certificate, this perception is largely false. Once we take a look at what a VA Disability rating means, you’ll see that there’s no reason for it to have any impact on an FAA medical certificate. I spoke to a former military O-6 flight doc who now serves as an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) to verify this.
Sadly, these bad ideas prevent many (if not most) military members from receiving VA Disability benefits that are and have always been part of their service contract. I’m writing this series to try and stop that from happening because I believe you and your family deserve better.
We’re going to shoot down all of these ideas. When we do, you’ll see why it’s not just morally acceptable for you to receive VA Disability, it’d be illogical not to.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve covered so far:
- The government considers you 100% expendable.
- You agreed to a contract that stipulates your expendability when you joined the military.
- Your contract includes a variety of compensation, including VA Disability later in life.
- There are some bad attitudes that prevent people from going after the VA Disability benefits they deserve. This is bad. We’re here to fix it.
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s see how the government calculates our partial expendability.
We’ve covered the fact that the military is willing to sacrifice your life for the mission, and we’re okay with it. If we’re willing to give the entirety of our lives, it follows that we’re willing to sacrifice a smaller portion of our well-being for our country as well.
Our government capitalizes on this part of our willingness to sacrifice, knowing that military service puts wear and tear on each of us. According to the Veterans Administration, Americans have been taking care of their wounded since before our country even existed.
The government has enough data on long-term effects of military service that it can calculate the lifetime cost for treating any ailment caused by a person’s military service. A soldier with hearing loss will probably need many doctor’s visits and sets of hearing aids during his or her lifetime. Special job training, counseling, and surgery may be necessary as well.
Many of us enjoy pulling Gs while we fly. Though this is fun, it’s virtually guaranteed to cause back problems for all pilots later in life. Treating those problems could require doctor’s visits, physical therapy, surgery, braces, special mattresses, and much more.
It’s not difficult to attribute the cause of these ailments to particular parts of our military service. It’s also important to realize that many physical ailments get worse over time. My father-in-law flew T-37s, T-38s, C-130s in Vietnam, and C-141s, before working for the airlines for a few decades. His hearing has gradually worsened over time.
Anyone who’s ever spent time around a Herk or a Tweet knows that hearing damage is happening. That damage may not be all that terrible on the day you leave military service to start your next job. However, the government knows (better than most indestructible young pilots) how your hearing loss is likely to progress throughout your life.
It’s very likely that when you leave the military and apply for VA Disability, your hearing could be decent. However, if you have any measurable, service-connected hearing loss, it’s all but guaranteed to get worse over time. If the VA awards you a Disability rating for that hearing loss, it doesn’t necessarily mean your hearing is bad now.
Let’s say you get a 10% rating for hearing loss, and that comes with a check for a couple hundred bucks a month. The government isn’t just handing you some cash out of the goodness of its heart. A bunch of bean counters in a dark corner of the Pentagon performed some very cold calculations to come up with that number. Their math says, “Given Emet’s level of hearing loss on Date X, we project the lifetime cost of treating his issues to be ______.”
Based on that number, the VA regulations calculate a monthly payment they send to you as a check. The monthly value they came up with is an amortized portion of the total amount of money you’re going to need to shell out over your lifetime to treat that condition. Knowing the government, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the money they pay for VA disability is only 80-90% of the expected lifetime cost, hoping that a few of us will kick the bucket early.
Having looked at the math, let’s return to some of the stigmas we considered earlier.
Does obtaining a VA Disability rating mean you’re weak and broken? No! It means there are measurable, lasting effects from your government service…and those effects are likely to get worse over time.
Further arguing against this stigma, I say there’s a case to be made for discriminating against those who aren’t a little broken at the end of their service. You can’t work out, fly, and live in the places we deploy to without some wear and tear…unless you completely sandbag your military service and make a lot of other people do your share of the work. If nothing else, having a VA Disability rating should be proof that you put Maximum Effort into your military service. It should be a badge of honor.
Next was the idea accepting VA Disability payments could make you a freeloader who takes advantage of the system. While I believe there are people who game the Disability system to get undue credit, I believe they’re in the minority. You and your doctors are the only ones who truly know the impacts of your military service. Take a look at what there’s evidence for and claim it.
Remember, these payments are not a surprise to anyone. They were part of the voluntary contract you signed with the US Government the very first time you raised your hand and took an oath. Taking this money is not mooching off an entitlement program, it’s two parties honoring that contract.
Failing to take this money would be no more logical than the home seller who randomly offers to drop his price, the lawyer who voluntarily gives up the company car because he doesn’t need it, or the airline exec who passes up a couple hundred million in stock options in exchange for helping the company make billions. Absolutely none of that makes sense.
You’re going to need that VA money because your injuries are long-term conditions. Unless you have a medical degree, you probably don’t even realize the long-lasting potential of those injuries. You don’t need to either. The government hired a bunch of doctors and shoe clerks to determine how your injuries are likely to play out. The money they’re offering is the absolute minimum compensation they think they can offer, in exchange for you sacrificing your long-term quality of life.
I hope I’ve convinced you that receiving a VA Disability rating is a good thing. It’s something to be proud of. It’s been a part of your contract with the government, whether you knew it or not, since the day you signed up. There is no logical reason to pass up this part of your contractually-guaranteed compensation. It’s the least your family deserves.
The next article in this series will address the concern that getting a VA Disability rating could affect your airline career. (It can’t in most cases.) After that, we’re going to skip to the end and look at the process of actually applying for VA Disability when you stop actively serving. Finally, with the context of the VA Disability application process in mind, we’ll go back in your career’s timeline and discuss ways to ensure that you have all the documentation you need to get the Disability rating you deserve.
Thanks for reading so far. We’ll see you back for Part 2 next week.
The shot from Air Force News is from this video: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/400367/dod-news-secretary-veterans-affairs-testifies.
The F-14 hulks are from this Popular Mechanics article. (They are, sort of, Iranian. They were never delivered to Iran though.) https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a25917/fighter-plane-parts-mystery/
The shot of our congressmen is from this tweet by Rep. Brian Mast: https://twitter.com/RepBrianMast/status/1080920426560270338
Shots from BCS and Glory are shameless screenshots. I highly encourage you to go watch the original programming. Both are fantastic!