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Maj. Richard Star, USA, is a combat engineer who is battling stage 4 lung cancer. Engineers are tough, and he is the sort who signed up for route clearance and road construction missions that were incredibly dangerous because of IEDs. But after his last deployment, the veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq knew something wasn’t quite right. The burn pits and other environmental hazards from his service had taken a toll.
Star and his wife, Tonya, discovered he had cancer just after Memorial Day 2018.
When they first entered Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, they never thought they would make friends with other servicemembers during their extended stay. In a shared struggle to heal, they made some lifelong friends. These friendships sparked the drive for their next fight. At Walter Reed, Star began to understand that he and many of his new friends would medically retire under Chapter 61 before reaching 20 years of service.
A Chapter 61 retiree is a servicemember who is forced to medically retire from injury on duty. These retirees are not authorized for concurrent receipt, which means receiving retirement pay from DoD for their service, while also receiving disability pay from the VA to compensate for injury.
A law that dates back to the 19th century prevents these retirees from receiving both retirement pay and disability pay. For every dollar of disability pay received, the law reduces, or offsets, retirement pay. There are 210,000 Chapter 61 retirees; of those, 42,000 have combat-related injuries.
As Richard Star is fighting cancer, he is also fighting to clear the road for concurrent receipt for retirees like him.
“When I first learned of the concurrent receipt problem, I was shocked that the rules actually made my retirement insignificant. You work for this retirement for years only to find out that you’re not eligible to get what you have earned. Then I was really worried about how I could support my family and what to cut back on to make things work out,” Star said.
The five-meter target for concurrent receipt is combat-related Chapter 61 retirements. MOAA’s long-term mission is to achieve concurrent receipt for all. The last progress was 16 years ago, and we need engaged members make progress. Sixteen years is a long time to wait.
“How long do we have to self-fund our VA disability pay? When Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) was making its way through Congress in 2003, retirees were told effectively, ‘Just be patient. It's too expensive to eliminate the offset for all. You retirees with less than 50% VA disability, we'll get your offset eliminated soon,’ " said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Roy, USN (Ret), a MOAA Life Member.
Congress demonstrated the willingness to address the inequity of offsetting DoD military retirement pay for VA disability compensation when it passed the Bob Stump National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003, which ended the offset for military retirees with 20 years of service and greater than 50% disability. Veterans who have a VA service-connected disability rating of 40% or less and Chapter 61 veterans are still required to offset their retirement pay with their VA benefits.
Congress also created the Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) program to provide partial offset relief for combat-wounded veterans. CRSC does not eliminate the entire offset, but it is an indication by Congress that combat-injured veterans should not be required to forfeit their retirement pay.
While bills to fully repeal the offset of military retirement pay and VA benefits have garnered support, they have failed to pass for over a decade due to cost.
“Looking ahead is filled with so much uncertainty and years of grief, as I know the love of my life will one day slip away,” said Tonya Star. “The loss of military retirement benefits was a shock. Because Rich will not reach 20 years of military service, he will be classified as a Chapter 61 retiree – a terrible injustice for our family and countless others.”
Clearing the Way
Even before COVID-19 was in the mainstream news, some senior leaders were told that Congress was still feeling the pain from two large provisions that passed by waiving the requirement for a funding source called a “pay-for.” One of those provisions is the repeal of the Survivor Benefit Plan-Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (SBP-DIC) offset, better known as the “widows tax.” The other is paid parental leave. Any long list without a “pay-for” would likely be dead on arrival.
The Military Coalition (MOAA is co-chair) went back to the drawing board on how to approach the concurrent receipt problem. The 2018 MOAA storming event was for all of Chapter 61 retirees, which would cost $5.8 billion over 10 years, an amount too large to get through the National Defense Authorization Act.
It was apparent that progress on concurrent receipt had be done in smaller steps. Champions were found, and TMC went to work.
Reps. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) sponsored H.R. 5995, the Major Richard Star Act.
“The brave men and women who return from serving our country should be able to receive the benefits promised to them. Military retirement pay and service-connected disability compensation are two completely different benefits,” Bilirakis said. “One does not diminish the merits of the other. While I am still committed to rectifying this injustice for all veterans, passage of the Major Richard Star Act gets us one step closer to our goal of ensuring that veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve.”
“After serving and sacrificing for our nation, too many veterans face unnecessary roadblocks in receiving the benefits they have earned and deserved,” Ruiz said. “That’s why I joined my friend, Congressman Bilirakis, in introducing the Major Richard Star Act, which would repeal the unjust law that stands in the way of veterans receiving the military retirement pay and service-connected disability compensation that they have rightfully earned.”
Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) sponsored the companion bill, S.3393.
“When it comes to providing disabled veterans with their earned benefits, the government needs to provide them in full— not have one benefit cancel out the other,” said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “The Major Richard Star Act would get rid of the unfair offset that prevents 42,000 veterans, who sacrificed life and limb in combat, from receiving both their disability compensation and retired pay. This bipartisan bill is a necessary step in making sure that veterans living with the wounds of war receive the benefits and assistance they deserve.”
Maj. Richard Star, USA, during a deployment to Iraq. (Photo courtesy of the Star family)
“I have been dedicated to ensuring all active and retired military personnel receive the care and benefits they deserve, which is why I previously worked to eliminate the military widows tax,” Crapo said. “The Major Richard Star Act will allow military retirees to receive both military retired pay and disability compensation without being offset. … As Congress works to improve veterans benefits, it is important to ensure that unfair discrepancies such as this are fixed.”
A Road Map Ahead
The Star Act is an incremental approach to concurrent receipt for military retirees. It is expected to cost roughly $2.5 billion over 10 years, while addressing all remaining concurrent receipt will cost $30 billion.
The incremental approach to concurrent receipt is envisioned as five milestones:
- Those who retire with 50% VA disability rating or higher. This was achieved through the 2003 NDAA.
- Those forced to medically retire because they were hurt in combat. This would be addressed by H.R. 5995 and S.3393.
- Those forced to medically retire because they were hurt on duty in non-combat incidents.
- Those who retire with 40% VA disability rating.
- Those who retire with 30% VA disability rating or below.
Drawing From Lessons Learned
There were many lessons learned from the long battle to repeal the widows tax, a fight that lasted more than a decade. Building support through co-sponsors and steady pressure resulted in success in last year’s NDAA.
When the widow’s tax was repealed, 86% of Congress had endorsed the legislation. The same can be achieved on concurrent receipt.
For Maj. Richard Star, this fight is larger than himself. He is realistic about his prognosis. In March he struggled, out of breath, as he tried to make it through the halls to visit congressmen. Even when near collapse, the thought on his mind was fighting through it for his friends at Walter Reed and his fellow veterans. For him, motivation is selfless service and the drive to never stop serving.
Please reach out to your elected officials to co-sponsor the Major Richard Star Act, push for its language to be included in the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, and correct the injustice of concurrent receipt.