A disabled veteran in Campbell County is distraught after losing a big chunk of his benefits. His monthly paycheck is going to be cut by nearly $1,500 because of pennies he earned two years ago.
Disability benefits for veterans depend on the severity of their service-connected injuries. Some disabled veterans are classified as TDIU, or Total Disability Individual Unemployability. They are veterans deemed by the Veterans Administration to be unable to work through gainful employment.
As a result, they’re eligible for monthly compensation, dependents’ educational benefits, and health insurance for their families.
Mike Sanders, a vet classified as TDIU, had his benefits cut at the beginning of January. He is a disabled veteran from the Gulf War era. He badly injured his back during his service. He was in the Army from 1987-1994 as a research lab assistant with the Chemical Corps and later as a field medic. His military resume is complete with numerous commendations and he rose to the rank of sergeant. However, he left the Army with service-connected injuries and a disability that left him unemployable at the end of 2014.
“Because I’m unable to work and support my family, the VA pays me at a 100 percent rate and gives my family the health care benefits,” said Mike Sanders.
He received a letter last September from the VA.
“They said they had information from the Social Security Administration that I had earned income for the year 2017,” he said.
He and his wife thought it strange. His disability benefits record shows he received $30,360 in 2017. His wife Melissa is a private duty nurse and the couple has a teenage son. Mike Sanders says his income was targeted in the letter.
“At the bottom here it says fill out the VA form 21-41-40, which is attached to the back here, which I did. You see here on box 10, it asks if you were employed by anyone at any time. I checked no in the box. Sign it and mail it in,” said Mike Sanders.
“Anytime we get anything from the VA, we get nervous,” said Melissa Sanders.
That had a reason to be nervous when the VA rating decision arrived a few weeks ago.
“This letter says the VA is discontinuing my disability effective January 1, 2019,” said Mike Sanders.
Education assistance for their son and health care for both Melissa Sanders and their son have been cut off. They’re also losing about $1,900 a month in income.
“I checked with the Social Security office. I made 18 cents in income for 2017,” Mike Sanders said. “It’s not very much money. I don’t think you can buy a stick of gum with it anymore, but apparently to the VA, that’s above the poverty threshold.”
“I was in shock and he was about to have a nervous breakdown,” said Melissa Sanders. “I don’t know how we are going to manage. Even with me working an extra shift if we can make it.”
A W2 form shows Consolidated Nuclear Energy was Mike Sanders’s former employer when he left in 2014.
“I found it it’s a rounding error, as they described it, from my previous employer just in the way they distributed benefits,” said Mike Sanders.
The couple has reached out to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander seeking assistance and has also gotten in touch with an out-of-state law firm that specializes in VA benefit cases. They’ve also contacted the VA about the decision.
“You call and there is nobody to talk to. You try to find out about benefits, there is no one to talk to,” said Melissa Sanders.
Mike Sanders doesn’t expect a quick resolution.
“It takes up to a year to 18 months to get this done. So, I’m stuck paying my bills with 18 cents of income. There is no way I can do that,” he said.
WATE 6 On Your Side wrote to the Veterans Administration last week seeking further information and wanting to understand how 18 cents caused Mike Sanders to earn above the poverty level in 2017. A VA spokesperson replied saying, “We will contact Mr. Sanders to provide an explanation and attempt to resolve his concerns.”
Mike Sanders will still receive some of his disability, but not at the level he had been getting before the VA learned he earned 18 cents two years ago.