Bill Would Dramatically Expand Retirement Benefits for 42,000 Veterans

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Air Force wheelchair basketball team.
A player on the Air Force wheelchair basketball team takes a shot during a scrimmage at the Rambler Fitness Center March 22, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. (U.S. Air Force/Benjamin Faske)

A measure just reintroduced in the Senate would dramatically expand disability benefits for veterans injured in combat.

The Major Richard Star Act would allow veterans who served less than 20 years before being medically retired due to combat-related injuries to receive both disability compensation and full retirement pay. Currently, only military retirees with at least 20 years of service and a disability rating of at least 50% can collect both benefits in their entirety.

Under current law, an estimated 42,000 retirees are ineligible for concurrent benefits. Their retirement pay is reduced by the amount of disability compensation they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation would remove limits on the level of disability covered, potentially driving up the government's costs significantly with full retirement pay for all such veterans.

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"When it comes to our nation's disabled veterans, we've got to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that's prevented them from getting the full benefits they've earned," Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

He added that the measure "would fix the unfair offset that prevents thousands of veterans living with the wounds of war from accessing both their disability benefits and retired pay."

Despite support from both chambers of Congress, the bill failed to pass last year and had to be reintroduced after the new Congress was sworn in. It also has wide support among veterans service organizations.

"Retirement pay and VA disability compensation are fundamentally different benefits, granted for different reasons," VFW National Commander William "Doc" Schmitz said in a statement last year. "To deny earned retirement pay from veterans who were unfortunately medically retired early because of wounds or illnesses sustained on the battlefield is an absolute injustice that must end now."

The bill's namesake, Maj. Richard Star, was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan He served as a combat engineer and died in February, according to the Military Officers Association of America. Star was medically retired after an injury on duty and died from metastatic lung cancer after exposure to burn pits overseas. He advocated for veterans to be able to collect full retirement and disability compensation after learning his pay would be offset. His wife left her job to take care of him and relied on that pay.

"Maj. Richard Star inspired veterans across the nation as he embarked on this selfless journey to ensure all families of servicemembers will be taken care of," Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, president and CEO of MOAA, said in a statement. "He has earned his rest and now it's our turn. We will honor his legacy by continuing his fight to get concurrent receipt passed for all servicemembers."

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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