All Combat-Injured Vets Would Keep Their Full Retirement, Disability Pay Under Proposal

Team Army’s wheelchair basketball match against Team Air Force.
U.S. Army veteran looks for dribbling space during Team Army’s wheelchair basketball match against Team Air Force, July 1, at McCormick Place Convention Center, Chicago, Illinois, at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games. (U.S. Army photo by Robert A. Whetstone)

Since 2004, military retirees with a Department of Veterans Affairs disability rating of 50% or higher have been able to receive their complete military retired pay and their full VA disability compensation without being docked for collecting both.

But veterans who were medically retired and who served less than 20 years, or those with a lower disability rating, are subject to offsets, ensuring that they don't collect more each month than their military retirement pay.

Members of Congress are again trying to change that, eliminating the dollar-for-dollar penalty for medically retired combat veterans -- a change that could add thousands to the pockets of an estimated 50,000 veterans each year.

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Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., called on their fellow lawmakers Tuesday to pass the Maj. Richard Star Act, a bill supported in the last Congress by more than 335 House members and 66 senators. The bill failed to pass after attention turned to the $280 billion PACT Act, which expanded VA health care and services for millions of veterans sickened by environmental exposures overseas.

"This is a top priority for nearly every veterans service group ... and so we will take our marching orders from them," Tester said Tuesday during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. "They are the folks who served."

Army Maj. Richard Star, for whom the bill is named, was a combat engineer with deployments to Operation Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in 2021 of lung cancer, a disease that has been linked to toxic airborne pollutants such as burning oil fields and burn pits.

As a result of his illness, Star was medically retired, known as a Chapter 61 retirement, before he reached 20 years of service; as such, he was ineligible to receive both his retirement and disability pay, known as concurrent receipt.

Bilirakis has tried for years to get a change through Congress without success.

"This is not a partisan issue," he said during the press conference. "This is a great injustice that must be corrected."

The cost is expected to be roughly $7 billion over the next decade, but during the press conference, Tester said the funding is a cost of war.

"People are gonna argue that this cost too much money, and I respect that, except for the fact that if we're going to send them off to war, we take care of them when they get home or otherwise we shouldn't send them off to war to begin with," Tester said.

The bill is supported by veterans service organizations that include the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and The Military Coalition, which represents 35 military and veterans service organizations.

While the proposal had broad bipartisan support in the last Congress, the landmark PACT Act took precedence for both lawmakers and veterans service organizations, given the scope of those set to be affected.

Bilirakis said the next step will be for committees to hold hearings on the bill and then hold votes in both chambers.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., told last month that he believes the bill should be considered by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

"I know that there's a lot of veterans out there that are concerned about it. I'm concerned about it, as well. And so we're gonna watch the process and see how they handle it over in that committee and, when it comes up on the floor, I'll make my decision based on the language that is in it," Bost said.

Bilirakis described optimism for the latest attempt to get the bill passed.

"We're going to get this done," he said during the press conference.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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