The Washington Times
Justices refuse to hear veterans' benefits case
By Frank J. Murray
Published June 3, 2003
The Supreme Court ended a legal battle by battalions of aging World War II and Korea retirees yesterday, leaving them without the lifetime free medical care recruiters promised them when they signed up.
Without comment on the merits, justices refused to consider overturning last year's decision against the veterans by the full Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which was sympathetic and advised the veterans to seek help in Congress.
The military promised recruits who entered the service from 1941 through 1956 that those who served for 20 years would be eligible for free medical care in military hospitals the rest of their lives. But Congress never approved such benefits, and the Pentagon stopped providing the care in 1995.
Government attorneys told the high court that simply reimbursing past medical expenses for 1.5 million retirees would cost $15 billion. That would not include the cost of future care for the retirees.
Thousands of the veterans who were promised medical care die each week. The lead plaintiff in the case died March 30 at age 76.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William O. Schism had filed the Supreme Court appeal and was lead petitioner in the case, Schism v. the United States. Yesterday, the court granted the motion by his only child, Mary Jane Short, to substitute her name, then denied the plea to hear the dispute.
"It's a sad day for World War II-Korea era warriors who gave their all but have been rejected by their government," said George E. Day of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., attorney for the Schisms, retired Lt. Col. Robert Reinlie, and an unnamed generation of veterans in similar situations.
"After 20 years of care in military hospitals, my wife and I were kicked out and forced to rely on Medicare," Col. Reinlie, a veteran of the Army and Air Force, said yesterday. "This is not what I was promised when I pledged to serve my country for 20 years. I'm astonished that at the age of 82 years I must continue to fight for the medical care I earned."
Mr. Day — an Air Force retiree, Medal of Honor recipient and former fighter pilot who was imprisoned in Vietnam — said yesterday that he will turn to getting Congress to pay those bills. His efforts included cartoon billboards in the Washington area and a rally at the Capitol.
"There already is a bill pending in the House and a bill in the Senate. I will be putting my focus on getting those passed into law," Mr. Day said from Salt Lake City in an interview in which the ever-optimistic veteran predicted passage against all odds.
"What that will accomplish will basically be to make health care free. What I would be looking for initially would be to first fix the matter of having to pay for free care, and secondly see if I can get some retroactive compensation out of Congress for these people who already have given so much," Mr. Day said.
The Federal Circuit Court in its Nov. 8 ruling last year expressed sympathy for the veterans' plight but said the judges "can do no more than hope Congress will make good on the promises made in good faith." Congress did take steps last year to absorb some health costs for older veterans but stopped short of the demands in Schism v. the United States.
The lawsuit was based on the military's promise to young recruits that medical benefits would be paid for those who stayed in the service for 20 years. Superiors authorized the promises, apparently unaware they were not backed by the legislation required to spend money.
Free health benefits were provided until the Pentagon halted coverage in 1995 for those older than 65 and eligible for Medicare, whose coverage is less complete than what the veterans were promised. Some bought supplemental insurance policies. Others paid out of their pockets.
Mr. Day pursued the lawsuit demanding that the military make good.
"It is not enough to hold parades or tie yellow ribbons," said a legal brief filed by the Military Officers Association of America in support of the appeal. "We must honor their commitment and sacrifice by assuring that the government honors its commitments to them."
In his Supreme Court brief, Mr. Day cited the war in Iraq as an example of the sacrifices made by veterans.
Troops in Iraq "are going for five days with no sleep, getting shot at, having to shoot at people.
"It gives people a realistic understanding of why you make those kinds of promises to make up for the low pay," he said.