National Catholic Register

Commentary

Pray and Pay For Veterans

Last March, life changed for

BY Father Andrew McNair LC

November 7-13, 2004 Issue | Posted 11/7/04 at 1:00 PM

 

Marine Lance Cpl. James Crosby when a rocket hit his vehicle in Iraq.

Shrapnel ripped through Crosby's side, shredding his intestines and severing his spine. In spite of all this, Crosby survived. Since then, losing 50 pounds and undergoing 14 operations, Crosby continues to recover from his injuries.

Bound to a wheelchair, the 20-year-old veteran looks on his military service with pride. He says, “I have no regrets for fighting for my country.” However, he does regret the fact that after being injured, his pay dropped from $2,500 to $1,300. Crosby and his wife, Angela, find it difficult to make ends meet with $1,300 a month. “When you're injured,” says Crosby, “that's a point in your life you need all the help you can get.”

Crosby is grateful that family and friends helped him pay his expenses.

If you're wondering why Crosby's pay plummeted in the first place, just ask the Department of Defense. They will tell you that soldiers get paid extra for fighting in a combat zone, for being in imminent danger and for being separated from family. That extra pay ends when a soldier leaves the combat zone.

The logic behind this policy simply says you get paid extra when you're able to comply with the conditions for extra pay. Consequently, you get normal pay if the conditions for extra pay don't exist. The Defense Department will foot the medical bills for injured soldiers and give other benefits entitled to veterans. However, that doesn't include extra pay for work a soldier can no longer do.

From a legal standpoint, a soldier agrees to this contract upon accepting military service. Therefore, the Defense Department may contend that its policy does justice to soldiers since no violation of the contract occurs.

Yet many perceive something shameful about cutting a wounded soldier's salary when he leaves the combat zone. As Crosby's dad, Kevin Crosby, put it, “It shouldn't be like this.”

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey agrees. The congressman asserts Crosby “didn't stop fighting when he left the combat zone. First, he was fighting for his life, now he's fighting for his health.” Last month, Markey introduced into Congress a bill called the Crosby-Puller Act. It would make sure injured soldiers removed from combat zones continue to receive combat pay until they recover or are discharged from duty.

Should the law demand that the Defense Department change its policy regarding combat pay? Is it right to pay someone extra even when they can no longer engage in combat?

The answer to this question centers on the issue of understanding justice.

We know that justice entails the willingness to give everyone his due. At first glance, the basic concept of justice may appear easy enough to understand. In fact, the moral virtue of justice represents a complicated reality. People often cling to false concepts of justice in their interpersonal relationships.

For instance, in the American legal tradition, we often understand justice as nothing other than what the law requires. This leads us to think that if something is legal, it is just. Consequently, justice changes as the law changes. If the law symbolizes our standard for justice, this implicitly means no law can be unjust, unless it conflicts with a more basic law within the same legal system.

This false concept of justice forgets that authentic justice cannot be reduced to legal positivism.

For justice to be objective and fair, its standard can be no other than the natural moral law written on the human heart, which we all can discern with the use of reason enlightened by faith. We cannot use only positive law to determine what is fair, right or just for our veterans. We need to consider the objective moral law to discern fairness.

People often misunderstand justice because they adhere only to a partial truth about the nature of justice. This makes the idea of justice fundamentally deficient for many.

To understand justice correctly, try to avoid these two mistakes prevalent in American culture: first, the tendency to reduce the idea of justice to fulfilling agreements or contracts only. Agreements or contracts can be unjust even when someone freely accepts them. And, secondly, people often think justice necessarily depends on the principle of merit. That's not the case. Many of our moral responsibilities of justice don't depend on merit.

For example, many people cannot earn enough money to care adequately for themselves because of illness or injury. To deprive them of basic necessities, like food, shelter, clothing and so on, would violate justice.

In my judgment, the Defense Department's policy on combat pay characterizes well these two deficient concepts of justice. For example, it's true Crosby freely entered the military and accepted the demands of military policy. However, a contractual relationship always becomes unjust when one party is unduly placed at a disadvantage.

Having your pay cut when you're sick and unable to work constitutes a disadvantage.

Furthermore, the Defense Department policies to suspend extra pay to wounded soldiers when leaving the combat zone appears to be based on the principle of merit. It says, in effect, that you must do the work to get the pay. Here, justice demands the government look at the contributions soldiers have made for the common good of us all. Wounded soldiers like James Crosby have made heroic sacrifices for the common good of our country. It seems only just to maintain their combat pay because of these sacrifices.

Justice obliges us to act fairly. The content of fairness is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule should be the ethical backbone of our relationships and our laws. In America, we pride ourselves on giving every man a fair shake.

Let's make sure our veterans get theirs.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair is a theology professor at Mater Ecclesiae College of Liberal Arts in Greenville, Rhode Island.