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Legislation moving swiftly to help Dover veteran save home

Shaheen links proposal to supplemental appropriations

DOVER - Legislation filed by the state's congressional delegation on behalf of a city veteran faced with losing his home is swiftly moving through Congress after U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen succeeded in getting the proposal attached to the supplemental appropriations package.

Lawmakers are seeking several changes to a law that allows the government to recoup special separation benefits in certain cases. But in an effort to ensure swift passage Shaheen, D-Madbury, said she chose to move forward with the part giving the secretary of defense "some flexibility" to consider how the military's policy could throw a veteran into financial hardship.

Such was the case for Wayne Merritt when he learned in March that the department's accounting arm planned to begin collecting $1,032 of the $1,759 pension he receives each month beginning with his April 1 check.

The 48-year-old married father of two learned the recoupment would continue until the $27,243 he received as a special separation benefit when he retired after 14 years in the Air Force in 1992 was fully collected.

Merritt joined the N.H. Air National Guard four years later and retired in 2006 with enough time to be eligible for a pension, but a United States Code says members of the military can't receive that and the benefits. Merritt has maintained he was never informed about the code, and he's said the way the department handled his case is unfair.

Shaheen said she agrees.

"The law doesn't make sense and how we've treated our veterans in these circumstances is not right," she said, "and that's why we need to work on it and change it because we want to make sure people like Wayne Merritt who have served their country - and to whom we all owe a bit of gratitude - don't get treated this way."

Shaheen said there are about 1,100 veterans in a similar bind across the nation, and she said the Department of Defense supports having flexibility.

The Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously backed the measure Thursday as part of the supplemental appropriations package, which has been swiftly moving through the chamber and offered the fastest way to move the Merritt-inspired bill forward, according to Shaheen's office.

Merritt said he appreciates her and other lawmakers' efforts. As his family's primary breadwinner, Merritt's feared having to sell his home since receiving the notice considering he depends on his pension to pay the mortgage while his salary as a local airport operations supervisor covers his family's expenses. Savings are in short supply, he's said.

Merritt said the hold the military put on recoupment for May has helped matters but he's hoping for a longer period "just in case" the legislation is not successful "even though it's moving so fast."

"We're still working on that," Shaheen said of further reprieve.

The delegation - including Sen. Judd Gregg, R-Rye, and Reps. Carol Shea-Porter, D-Rochester, and Paul Hodes, D-Concord - filed legislation last week prohibiting the Department of Defense from taking back more than 25 percent of a veteran's pension each month and mandating it notify veterans of the recoupment no less than 90 days before repayment begins.

Shaheen said passage of those provisions is still being sought but had to take a back seat to the aspect granting the defense secretary greater flexibility. She said that provision is enough to help Merritt at this point while the others raise controversy.

"We're also going for a provision waiver to allow the secretary of defense to waive the entire payment in severe hardship cases," she said. "There have been some concerns expressed about the potential cost. ... We don't yet have cost figures on what that would mean so that's one concern some members in the House have expressed."

The supplemental appropriations bill, including the legislation impacting Merrill, is expected to come up for a full vote in the Senate next week. The bill then heads to a conference committee between the House and Senate to hammer out any differences, and Shaheen pledged to make sure the Merritt legislation stays intact.