Army Cpl. Tyler Wilson was 20 years old when he was hit in a firefight in Afghanistan and paralyzed from the waist down.
Eleven years later, Wilson is five months away from becoming a father — a privilege that cost he and wife Crystal Wilson more than $14,000 in fertility treatments — service-connected health care that isn't provided by the Veterans Affairs Department.
On Wednesday, severely disabled veterans like Wilson celebrated as Congress approved legislation that allows the VA to provide fertility services or cover the cost of adoption for veterans with service-connected infertility.
For Tyler and Crystal, this could mean their unborn baby won’t be an only child.
“Our goal always had been ‘we’d love to have two,’ but it took everything we had for this one,” Crystal said. “This could potentially eliminate a barrier placed on those who have honorably served.”
The bill, H.R. 5235, will keep the government running for 10 more weeks and includes funding for military construction and the Veterans Affairs Department, including the language that allows the VA to provide in vitro fertilization treatments and other reproductive services.
But it does not include the $88 million Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had pushed for to fund the benefit.
Murray has lobbied since 2012 on behalf of the estimated 1,800 former troops who may qualify for the benefit. She declared victory Wednesday in her long fight to loosen the 24-year ban.
“Our country makes a promise to veterans to take care of them long after their service is over,” Murray said. “I was encouraged to see so many Republicans join Democrats earlier this year to line up in support of my provision.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the benefit could cost roughly $145 million a year. Murray, however, has said the CBO estimate is significantly higher than the VA actually would pay, because not all veterans who are eligible would request the benefit.
Under the legislation, VA would have to find money in its medical services account to provide fertility counseling, treatment or adoption reimbursement.
Last year, VA assistant deputy under secretary for patient health services Dr. Rajiv Jain told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that the department supported the legislation but had “concerns about ensuring VA had the appropriate resources” for it.
If the VA decides to provide the benefit, it would give veterans the hope to have children and the chance to plan for a family, advocates said.
It’s an opportunity veterans organizations including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Wounded Warrior Project said veterans deserve.
"Our nation owes these men and women every opportunity to realize the futures they had ahead of them before their injuries," said Mike Linnington, CEO of Wounded Warrior Project. "They answered the call to serve; we're thankful Congress has answered the call to provide benefits these wounded veterans earned."
“Veterans who have lost their ability to have children due to service related injuries and illnesses deserve the opportunity to start a family,” said Raymond Kelley, legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
A Murray spokeswoman said the senator plans to press to overturn the 1992 law that bars the VA from providing fertility services to veterans, which continues to remain in place despite the passage of H.R. 5235, which, as a funding bill, only directs the VA to spend money on services but doesn’t lift the ban or provide funding.
Two years may be enough time for retired Army Sgt. Kevin Jaye and wife Lauren to try for another baby. New parents in August to a baby girl — the result of fertility treatments covered by Lauren’s health insurance that carries a lifetime cap — they may try for another child if VA covered the cost.
For Jaye, injured by an IED in Afghanistan in 2012, IVF offers the only pathway to fatherhood.
"It's hard to imagine when we hold our daughter in our arms that there are veterans who have been denied that opportunity because of an injury they received serving their country and they can't afford to do what we did,” Lauren Jaye said. "We are really hopeful for the people who have been waiting for years."
Patricia Kime covers military health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org