Let's say you have spent months in the hospital recuperating and in physical therapy. You have been awarded one of this nation's highest awards for your service and sacrifice, the Purple Heart Medal. Your doctors tell you that you will be in some pain and on medications for the rest of your life, and that your disfiguring scars will fade a little with time. Your body has become immune to your pain medications, and you are forced to just 'deal with it'. Sleep is the only relief you have. When you can finally fall asleep, your body jerks violently waking you back up. Every time you close your eyes it is as if you were reliving/replaying the entire RPG explosion in your dreams over and over again.
Your subconscious mind tries to convince yourself that 'this time' you will somehow jump out of the way of the rocket and not be hurt. But, when you are startled awake, the pain and discomfort reveals the ugly reality. On one hand you are extremely grateful to be alive, and on the other hand, you question your survival. You don't yet understand that your wounds are both physical and emotional and that the physical and mental scars from your near-death experience are very deep and will follow you throughout your life until the day you die.
Now, allow me to elaborate even further. Let's say your injuries qualify you for service-connected disability compensation from the Department of Veteran's Affairs, and you receive a tax-exempt monthly disability check from the VA. And let's say, in spite of your scars and disabilities, you are fortunate enough to find a mate and marry. Now, imagine your marriage decaying over several years to the point of divorce because your spouse no longer wishes to live with your jumping in your sleep. You are totally disabled and unable to work, and your only source of livelihood is your VA disability check. You provide the divorce court with a sworn financial statement that substantiates that your VA check is your only cash source and you have no other assets. The next thing you know, a civil court judge has awarded half of your VA disability compensation to your able-body non-military ex-spouse in the form of alimony, or spousal support. Your attorney advises you that there is nothing you can do about it, and withdraws from your case. You can't afford to retain another lawyer, so you are faced with four basic decisions;
- Find a pro-bono attorney to file an Appeal and fight for your earned veteran's disability compensation.
- Leave the state and never return.
- Blow your brains out. (Statistics show that suicide among former U.S. military personnel are considerably higher than national averages within the civilian population.)
Sound far fetched? Not at all, in fact similar scenarios unfold in divorce courts nationwide everyday. Self-serving attorneys and judges have found ways to circumvent federal laws that prohibit third party awards of veteran's benefits. The VA and our politicians turn a blind eye towards these civil courts as they wrongly interpret veteran's disability compensation as a divisible marital asset.
Operation Firing For Effect (OFFE), a 501 (c)19 non-profit veteran's advocacy group, is currently monitoring over two dozen cases in several states where disabled veterans are forced to pay alimony from their VA disability compensation or go to jail for contempt. In several of these cases totally disabled veterans have been jailed for not voluntarily giving up their VA disability compensation to a third party.
It is very clear what Congress intended when they wrote US Code, Title 38, section 5301(a); their wording leaves no gray area. Congress intended to totally protect veteran's disability compensation from the greedy hands of anyone using these funds as a divisible consideration in any/all court proceedings in the land. Congress wanted to insure that a person that was injured in the line of duty was the sole recipient of their earned disability compensation, and that these tax-exempt funds not be diverted to an ineligible able-body non-military person.
Micigan disabled vet forced to pay out
Vietnam combat disabled veteran Calvin Murphy on November 17, 2007 was ordered by Michigan Circuit Court Judge, James Batzer to pay his ex-spouse $800 a month until she remarries from his disability compensation, and Murphy also was ordered to pay his ex-wife's attorney fees amounting to an additional $3000.
According to sworn testimony from the former Mrs. Murphy, she could no longer live with Mr. Murphy and his combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder. She simply did not want to live with him any more. There were no claims of spousal abuse or infidelity made by Mrs. Murphy. The Murphys have no minor children.
At one point, attorney Connie Krusniak argued that Mrs. Murphy has suffered from Mr. Murphy's PTSD bouts just as much as her husband has, and therefore she was entitled to a portion of Mr. Murphy's VA disability compensation. Calvin Murphy was accused in open court of 'romanticizing' his combat military service in an attempt to avoid paying alimony.
At another point in the testimony, Mr. Murphy's attorney, Wendy Divozzo provided the court with certified receipts showing that Mrs. Murphy had a gambling habit and she had lost over $24,000 at one local casino since the Murphy's had been separated.
Judge Batzer refused to accept the argument that Mr. Murphy's VA disability compensation was protected by federal statute and ordered Mr. Murphy to pay or go to jail.
Calvin Murphy is appealing the decision. However, to avoid being jailed in the meantime, Murphy has to pay the court order until his appeal is heard. So, even if he wins his appeal in the future, he loses a great deal of his earned veteran's disability benefits now.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what is happening here. Divorce lawyers and civil court judges have found a 'cash cow' in veteran's disability benefits and they are milking it dry. Many attorneys incorrectly think VA disability compensation funds are exactly the same as any other military retirement pay issue, and therefore divisible in a divorce. Many attorneys see veteran's disability compensation as a means for their client to pay their legal fees. Therefore, attorneys have a vested interest in targeting a veteran's disability compensation. Everyone wins in the divorce, except the disabled veteran.
Operation Firing for Effect is stonewalled
OFFE has been watching this issue develop closely for some time now and has contacted several federal agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs. What OFFE found was that the VA claims they are not a law enforcement agency and cannot enforce USC Title 38 in divorce courts. Several members of Congress said 'they' do not get involved in civil matters, nor do they interfere with the legal process in state family courts. The Attorney General and Department of Justice said judges cannot be held legally liable for their decisions; therefore, there is no violation of law. They suggested that an attorney should be hired to prove that a law had been broken in the courts.
Several national media outlets said they only do stories on high profile celebrity divorces. Meanwhile, our combat wounded troops currently being nursed back to health at Walter Reed and Brook Army can take little comfort in the fact that their earned veteran's disability compensation is not as protected as Title 38 suggests.
Calvin Murphy has pledged as long as his attorney sticks by him, he will take his Appeal all the way to the highest court in Washington, DC if necessary.
Commentary by Jere Beery