07/05/06 — Veterans ask leaders to give back benefits

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Veterans ask leaders to give back benefits

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 5, 2006 1:47 PM

Years ago, as retired Senior Master Sgt. John Armstrong finished his appointment at the doctor's office, he was told not to return -- the government was no longer footing the bill for his medical care, and he did not have a plan to cover future examinations, his doctor said.

Then, in April 1998, the doors of the hospital at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base were "closed to military retirees over the age of 65," Armstrong said.

Recently, Armstrong and other members of the Alliance of Retired Military traveled to the nation's capital to speak with North Carolina representatives and to fight for the health care they say they were promised and then lost.

When Armstrong and his comrades joined the military, they were told that in exchange for a career of service to their country -- 20 years or more -- they would receive health care for life. But once they reached 65, the men and women were left without coverage, he said.

"When we retired, they stopped paying," Armstrong said. "I was really mad. The doctor told me that my only recourse was to go through my elected officials."

So, for the past eight years, Armstrong and the organization he helped found have done just that.

"Nine years ago, seven volunteers came together right here at this table," he said, adding each year since it was chartered in 1998, members of the organization have taken their protest to Washington.

"We're not looking for a handout," he said. "We're just looking for what we were promised."

In 2001, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals found that a promise had indeed been made -- military retirees who entered the service before June 7, 1956, had been offered health care for life in exchange for 20 years of service.

Despite the court's findings, nothing changed. In March 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that while health care for life had been promised, no statute existed allowing Congress to appropriate those funds.

After that, Armstrong said he knew retirees who had served in Vietnam, World War II and Korea were in for another battle -- this time against a country they had risked their lives to defend.

"Whenever they promised us this health care, we believed that was our security blanket," he said. "We didn't even think about getting a health care plan."

Then, he added, Congress turned its back on the pledge, leaving aging heroes ill, broke and without medication.

"At 65, you can't hardly pay for insurance," he said. "So, we were left hanging out. And that's not the way it's supposed to be."

After the Supreme Court ruling came down, Armstrong and his comrades took another trip to the steps of the Capital building in Washington -- this time with a homemade casket.

"We held a funeral service for the guys who passed away and did not get the health care they were promised," he said.

Chief Master Sgt. Billy Darlington said the government did not respond to their statement.

"Those people up there are pretty tough-skinned," he said.

This year, he added, the group took a different approach as they again forged the traffic and endured a long ride to the nation's capitol to ask representatives to make good on a half-decade old pledge. They broke into small groups and visited notable North Carolina representatives -- Elizabeth Dole, Walter Jones, Richard Burr and G. K. Butterfield.

They told their elected officials about their struggles and the impact the broken promise could have on the future of the military, Darlington said.

"The armed forces are having problems recruiting," he said. "This is having an effect. The armed forces are suffering because the government hasn't kept its promise to the ones who have already been there. I keep telling people we're going to have a war to fight and nobody is going to want to show up."

Still, Darlington, Armstrong and others fear nothing will change. The politicians in Washington just don't understand, they said.

"We have learned to have practically no faith in our Congress," Darlington said.

Despite these sentiments, he will never lose faith in his country, he added.

"It's a hard thing to explain," Darlington said. "Yes, I am proud that I served. The pride is still there in the country, in the service and the people I served with. But we lost faith in our Congress. They just don't understand."

The alliance hopes its visit might have influenced North Carolina representatives to back the Keep Our Promise to America's Military Act, HR602, which was first introduced in 1999 by Congressman Ronnie Shows and was reintroduced in the current Congress by Congressman Chris Van Hollen.