BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) – A retired Marine corporal who bagged up pieces of dead soldiers in a mortuary affairs unit in Iraq brought a class action for thousands of veterans he claims are being cheated out of disability benefits.
Simon Soto says in his federal lawsuit that he has vivid nightmares from his two tours in Iraq more than 10 years ago, haunted by memories of his time in the unit that was called out to recover the remains any time a U.S. soldier was shot or blown up.
“Soto has described one mission where ‘we picked up over 300 pieces of five or seven soldiers, in which case it wasn’t really easy to identify who and it was just literally chunks and pieces of flesh that we were processing,’” according to the March 2 lawsuit.
Soto received seven medals and other honors during his nearly six years with the Marine Corps. He retired from active duty in April 2006.
As he struggled with suicidal thoughts and civilian life, Soto says, the Department of Veterans Affairs found him 100 percent disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder and deemed him eligible for disability payments, formally called combat-related special compensation.
But because he waited until June 2016 to apply for disability pay with the Navy, which oversees the Marine Corps, he did not beat a 6-year statute of limitations, and the government capped his retroactive disability payments at six years.
“If you file your claim more than 6 years after initial eligibility, you will be restricted to 6 years of any retroactive entitlement,” the lawsuit states, citing a section of U.S. code that governs military benefit claims.
Soto says the government is misreading the statute. He says the code, 31 U.S.C. Section 3702(b), puts the 6-year limit on retroactive claims for survivor benefits, travel costs, payments for unused leave and retirement pay, but not combat-related special compensation, which is not explicitly included in the code.
So Soto says the government is illegally capping retroactive disability benefits and he should get 8½ years of those payments instead of six.
He estimates that thousands of the 88,610 military retirees who get combat-disability pay also have been shorted by the cap.
He seeks class certification and damages of up to $10,000 per member.
He is represented by Tracy LeRoy with Sidley Austin in Houston.