A few decades ago, Braulio Castillo hurt his foot in a military prep school he attended for nine months. He went on as a civilian to play football in college, never putting on a United States Armed Forces uniform, living a healthy, productive life.
Decades later, however, Castillo sent a letter to the VA requesting consideration of this injury as part of a claim for disability compensation, saying of his teenage ailment, “These are crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country and I would do it again to protect this great country.”
His timing wasn’t off. In fact, it was ideal. Castillo owns a technology company that was seeking a special designation as a service-disabled, veteran-owned business that would make him eligible for government set-aside contracts, which the Obama administration is emphasizing across all agencies to support veterans’ employment and businesses.
He likely did not imagine the moment when he would sit before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) would read his own words back to him.
“I’m so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country,” she said. “Shame on you, Mr. Castillo. Shame on you. You may not have broken any laws … but you certainly broke the trust of this great nation. You broke the trust of veterans.”
Rep. Duckworth is right. Castillo is cunning and unprincipled, but he has not yet been found to break any laws. The Veterans Benefits Act of 2003 created a government procurement program for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs), that provided federal contracting officers the ability to restrict competition to SDVOSBs and award sole source or set-aside contracts if the businesses meet certain criteria. In order to be eligible, a business owner must own 51% of the company, have a service-connected disability as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense, control daily operations, and hold the highest officer position in the company. Castillo had a 30% disability rating granted by the VA (each injury is rated on a scale of percentages, and then the total ratings are rounded to the nearest 10%).
Rep. Duckworth pressed Castillo again. “Do you feel that the 30% rating that you have for the scars and the pain in your foot is accurate to the sacrifices that you've made for this nation, that the VA decision is accurate in your case?”
Duckworth continued, “You know my right arm was essentially blown off and reattached. I spent a year in limb salvage with over a dozen surgeries over that time period. And in fact we thought I would lose my arm, and I'm still in danger of possibly losing my arm. I can't feel it, I can't feel my three fingers. My disability rating for that arm is 20%.”
This was the part of the hearing where many in the veteran community experienced a synchronized collar-tug. Any veteran who sustains a service-connected injury or illness in academy prep school, training, or battle is rated and subject to entitlements. The nature of service — whether at peace, war, combat, aboard a ship, on the football field, in a kitchen, or at a school — is not considered in the rating process. It’s a basic tenet that there is no special consideration for the nature of service — only the severity of the illness or injury. This is actually different from other benefits which are specifically reserved for wartime veterans.
Some in the community describe a social problem of measuring severity of disability as a cultural metric for service or sacrifice. The argument is a dangerous one, sending the message that service-connected disability is more valid if it's combat-related. It reinforces a broader societal impression, further entrenched by thematic media coverage, that combat veterans sacrifice more than veterans who serve in non-combat rolls.
A Military Times reader commented on the story, “There is suggestion in the testimony that disabled veteran status should be based on a determination of 'my debilitating injury is worse than your injury' comparisons. Clearly Mr. Castillo’s injury is not at the same level as loss of limb and other injuries suffered by our veterans. As a woman- and veteran-owned small business (Vietnam, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom veteran) I am waiting to hear from the VA on claims I have submitted. I would be very distressed to have my disability determination based on others’ level of disability. I have served my country and have earned benefits afforded to veterans and would expect that my claim determinations are made on my own merits, not on a comparison of others’.”
Castillo may be an ethically compromising opportunist who exploited a weakness of several SBA programs. He put in peril an act of Congress that is helping countless veteran-owned businesses by undermining their dedication, service and ethic. A New York Post editorial over July 4 weekend wrote:
“We Americans are a generous nation, and we must not stint our obligations to those disabled through their service to our nation. But as Tammy Duckworth brought to light, it becomes harder to meet our responsibilities to the deserving when an important benefit can be manipulated into an entitlement sweepstakes.”
It is a shame that a program enabling our nation’s veterans to reach their potential is being reduced to a pawn in the hyper-partisan entitlement game. It’s a shame that more than 562,00 people learned about these hard-working federal program officers, SDVOSBs, and VA benefits with Braulio Castillo in mind.
There are a number of ways to improve this system, and hopefully Chairman Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) committee can propose some of them. While this issue has received mythical bipartisan ire, there are still no serious legislative options on the table. Programs meant to support our nation’s veterans are founded on the basic principles of our country. Mr. Castillo’s dishonorable behavior should not be used as the catalyst to roll back or discontinue programs and benefits for those who actually do defend our freedoms.