CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From West Virginia's last living Medal of Honor recipient to the former military chief of its National Guard, veterans are calling for a more fair and consistent process for boosting the pensions of state employees who have served in the armed forces.
But officials at the Consolidated Public Retirement Board defend their awarding of military service credits, and say they reflect one of the most generous policies of its kind in the country. The board also continues to study the issue through a special subcommittee and notes that the Legislature is reviewing the topic as well, spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown told The Associated Press
In the meantime, however, the board keeps ending up in court over its service credit decisions. A series of veterans have alleged that they were denied pension increases they had earned through their service. Recently retired National Guard Adjutant General Allen Tackett is among them.
Another veteran sued in March, and three more have upcoming administrative appeals. At least one circuit judge has ruled the board wrongly shorted a veteran on benefits. One pending Kanawha Circuit Court appeal seeks to become a class-action case.
"Legislatively, they just can't seem to figure out what to do with it. When you look at it politically, perhaps they'd rather have the court address it,'' said Lonnie Simmons, a Charleston lawyer who represents several of the veterans. He added, "The elephant in the room is how much of this is going to cost. But that's not what the board's is supposed to be looking at. They're supposed to follow the statutes.''
All of the state's traditional pension plans offer credits for military service. But they differ in key ways. As a recruiting tool, for instance, the State Police pensions add five years toward the retirement of a trooper who's a veteran, in exchange for least 20 years with the department. The Teachers Retirement System offers up to 10 years' worth of credits -- but only to enrollees who served during the draft, which ended in 1973.
Most of the court cases involve the state's main pension plan, the Public Employees Retirement System. The board estimates that around 1,100 of its enrollees retire each year, and between one-fourth and one-fifth of them receive some military service credits.
This plan enhances a retiree's length of employment by up to five years, for active duty service during a draft or "a period of armed conflict.'' The law lists an array of conflicts, dating back to the late 1800s. The most recent mentioned is the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s.
But the law also refers to "any other period of armed conflict by the United States.'' Veterans have repeatedly cited that language as they appeal the denial of service credits. They also argue that the board has shorted them credits for serving during the dozens of military operations that have happened since the 1973 end of the draft, in such places as Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Kosovo.
Complicating the policy dispute, the board decided shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to credit all service from that point forward -- with no end date.
Simmons said there were many conflicts between 1973 and 2001.
"They just simply ignore all that, and that's what all this litigation has been over,'' he said.
Simmons helped Daniel Olthaus go to court in 2008 over his pension benefits. Olthaus sought the full five years after serving 20 years in the Navy as a nuclear engineer, from August 1983 until September 2003. The board credited him with 33 months, for service during the Persian Gulf War and for his two years following 9/11.