From natural disasters to a devastating pandemic, civil unrest and election security, National Guard and Reserve members face ever-increasing demands which can lead to injuries during service. But those same troops can struggle to access the benefits they've earned that their active-duty counterparts receive without the same challenges.
Veterans of those forms of service also face the same hurdles after they separate. Jerry Kromrey set out to change that.
Kromrey showed up to each of Rep. Ro Khanna's town halls in California. He'd bring fellow vets with him. His persistence has paid off.
For more than two years, Khanna, his staff, veterans and veteran service organizations have worked together to create a legislative path to help those service members access the benefits they need and already earned. On Friday, the White House announced that President Donald Trump signed their bill into law.
The Identifying Barriers and Best Practices Study Act filed by Khanna orders the U.S. Comptroller General to conduct a three-year study of disability and pension benefits provided to veterans who served in special missions, such as pilots and divers, and those who served on reserve components of the Armed Forces on active duty.
Guard and reservists report that service-connected injuries are not always properly documented by medical staff due to the nature of service and the tempo of the work required during that shortened time of service, Khanna said, which can lead to difficulty getting disability benefits.
"A lot of times when we think of the Guard facing injuries, we think of someone who may be shot at or someone who may have taken a bad fall and we forget there may be other disabilities that come from a person being in an uncomfortable position for a long time, repetitive motion or undue strain on a person's body," Khanna said in an interview with Connecting Vets following his bill's passage to the president's desk in early October. "We often miss people who serve and develop lifelong conditions. Let's listen to those who served and study the issue so that veterans aren't denied benefits for non-obvious injuries."
There's clear evidence that veterans with chronic conditions can have difficulty holding full-time jobs that are often tied to necessary civilian benefits, but there's not always military records to back up non-obvious injuries and conditions such as those caused by repetitive motions and other requirements during service.
"Shockingly, there are veterans who are sometimes dismissed as exaggerating conditions which are actually very debilitating," Khanna said. "Sometimes the veterans themselves are embarrassed to claim disability for conditions that absolutely merit it. They have it in their mind that if they haven't been physically wounded in warfare, their injury or disability is less legitimate. This study will help counter that. I believe that a study like this can change our attitude toward disability and encourage VA to be more inclusive in its interpretation."
That includes injuries that may have resulted from training or normal workplace injuries, Khanna said -- repeated crouching to get into aircraft, adapting to driving different vehicles and other physical demands that can cause wear and tear on the body over time.
The study itself will lay "necessary groundwork," Khanna said.
"In civilian life, we're very aware of the many ways you can have a workplace injury," he said. "In the Guard or Reserves, they're taking risks much higher than those of us in an office in civilian life, but they're not getting the disability benefits they earned. The hope is this will expand our understanding of the disabilities and challenges and start an honest conversation."