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Issa, Duckworth bill would restrict definition of 'veteran'

Nov. 15, 2013 - 02:43PM   |  
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A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to make small business owner Braulio Castillo one of the last of his kind.

Castillo, president and chief executive officer of Strong Castle, an information technology company, came to national attention in June for a tongue-lashing he received at a House hearing because his company received preferential treatment in getting government contracts set aside for disabled veterans.

Castillo never served on active duty, but he receives veterans disability compensation as result of a foot injury he received at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.

It was Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who questioned Castillo at a June hearing about how his disability, rated at 30 percent by the Veterans Affairs Department, compares with the disabilities she suffered as a result of combat injuries in Iraq.

Duckworth is a disabled Iraq veteran who lost both legs and the use of an arm after a helicopter crash. “My right arm was essentially blown off and reattached,” she said, noting she has no feeling in three fingers.

Her disability rating for her arm is 20 percent, less than the rating for Castillo’s ankle.

“Shame on you,” Duckworth said to Castillo at the June hearing. “You may not have broken any laws. But you certainly broke the trust of this great nation and you broke the trust of veterans.”

An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found Castillo was recruited in 1984 to play football at the U.S. Military Academy but was first enrolled in the preparatory school, a common practice. He injured his left foot during an “orienteering exercise” and was discharged from the school.

Despite going on to play football at the University of San Diego, Castillo applied for and was awarded a service-connected disability from VA in 2012, just as he was creating a information technology company.

The committee report says Castillo was never on active duty but was considered a veteran because of his injury.

Duckworth and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the House are the chief sponsors of a bipartisan bill introduced Nov. 13 to change that by redefining the definition of a veteran to exclude people like Castillo. The bill, HR 3469, has 58 cosponsors

The bill would specifically prevent someone who attended a service academy preparatory school from being treated as a veteran or disabled veteran for the purposes of receiving veterans’ disability compensation and being considered a veteran when applying for a small-business contract.

Called the Support Earned Recognize for Veterans Act, or SERV Act, the bill would clarify that being a student at an academy prep school does not make someone a veteran unless they are a service member while attending, and says that treatment for disability of an academy prep school student is not to be considered active service.

The provisions are not retroactive, so there is no direct threat to Castillo’s disability pay. However, it could make it difficult for his business to get additional government contracts under veterans’ preference rules because he could not certify he ran a small business owned by a disabled veteran — or even simply a veteran — under the proposed change.

“Those who never actually served our country are not and should not be entitled to receive this special status,” Issa said in a statement. “This loophole must be closed to reduce these egregious abuses and prevent taxpayer dollars from being inappropriately awarded to non-veterans.”

Duckworth called the bill “a common sense solution to a small problem,” and a “good start so that we can spend taxpayer dollars more effectively and honor our veterans properly.”

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