Pentagon & Congress

Proposed law would eliminate benefits deduction for military retirees with combat-related injuries or illnesses

Grasping his wife’s hand and flanked by a dozen cap-wearing representatives from veterans service organizations, retired Army Maj. Richard A. Star thanked those gathered Tuesday in Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ Capitol Hill office for their support of a new bill bearing his name.

The Major Richard Star Act, HR 5995, introduced by Bilirakis, a Republican from Florida, seeks to eliminate a legal provision that prevents some retired veterans from simultaneously collecting two types of federal monetary benefits, referred to as “concurrent receipt.”

More than 200,000 medically retired veterans with disabilities currently “have their military [retirement] pay offset or reduced dollar-for-dollar” by the amount of their disability compensation, according to the Congressional Research Service. This bill would affect one-fifth of these retirees.

Bilirakis, among others, has contended these payments are two “completely different benefits," of which service members should be entitled to both.

Attorney Natalia Khawam, first row, second from left, stands with Rep. Gus Bilirakis, left-center, Tonya and Maj. Richard Star, and representatives from veterans service organizations on March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)
Attorney Natalia Khawam, first row, second from left, stands with Rep. Gus Bilirakis, left-center, Tonya and Maj. Richard Star, and representatives from veterans service organizations on March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)

“These retirees are unjustly denied the benefits they deserve, and in this country that should never happen,” Bilirakis said Tuesday. “It is because of stories like Maj. Star’s that I was moved to rectify this injustice…That’s the least we can do for our heroes.”

Star, 50, a former combat engineer with multiple overseas deployments, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2018, which he said is linked to repeated, intimate exposures to burn pits over 20 years. Scans of Star’s lungs had shown irregularities as far back as 2017, but civilian and military doctors incorrectly diagnosed him with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, Star said.

After emergency surgery in May 2018, Star has undergone three types of chemotherapy treatment, including one medical trial. His cancer diagnosis ended his nearly 30-year-long service in the Reserves and on active duty, and his family has since grappled with the benefits offset.

“This [offset] had been something that had been weighing on our minds, and we had no idea where to turn,” Star said. “Everybody that we talked to or even mentioned this to, has been so supportive of this bill.”

By his side throughout his fight and during Tuesday’s event was Tonya Star, the veteran’s wife.

“This [bill] means so much to me, to all the caregivers — the wives, the moms, the sisters, the aunts — that have loved ones come back from serving overseas and have an injury or illness,” Tonya Star said. “They are thrown into a role that they didn’t apply for and they don’t get paid for. But they wouldn’t let anybody else do it."

“I just want to give them hope that this bill will help compensate for what they are doing, that they get retirement benefits and disability benefits, so families don’t have to struggle financially after going through something that is life-changing,” Tonya Star added.

“She supported me through the hard times when we thought we were going to be basically hung out to dry,” Star said of his wife. “She helped me through some of the toughest times I’ve ever had and some of the toughest treatments I’ve ever had.”

Retired Maj. Richard A. Star with his wife, Tonya Star, speaking at the introduction of the legislation bearing his name at Rep. Gus Bilirakis' Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)
Retired Maj. Richard A. Star with his wife, Tonya Star, speaking at the introduction of the legislation bearing his name at Rep. Gus Bilirakis' Capitol Hill office on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)

Working with numerous service organizations, Maj. Star’s attorney, Natalie Khawam, advocated for the bill to bear the retired soldier’s name.

“Even though I represent [veterans] on military medical malpractice, it’s not a one-dimensional issue. Medical malpractice causes other issues,” said Khawam, founder of the Whistleblower Law Firm in Tampa, Florida. “This is one of those issues: the offset. I told [the Star family], ‘Somebody has got to do something about this.’”

“It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s not a Republican issue. It’s an American issue, so I know we have a really good chance here of getting this bill passed,” Khawam added.

In 2004, Congress enacted legislation to eliminate the offset for retirees with 20-plus years of service with a disability rated at 50 percent or greater. Over 210,000 military retirees, however, still do not qualify.

Bilirakis’ goal is to eventually enact full concurrent receipt for all these veterans, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $30 billion over 10 years.

The Major Richard Star Act specifically addresses 42,000 of these veterans who, like Star, were medically retired due to combat-related injuries or illnesses before 20 years of active-duty service. These retirees are currently eligible for Combat Related Special Compensation (CRSC), but the coverage varies dramatically on a case-by-case basis.

“This has been a decades-long issue, and we are trying to rectify the issue by chipping away at the problem,” said Kyle Kalman, associate director of legislative service at the VFW. “We are trying to chip away at it block by block, so we have the next five years to completely eliminate the offset.”

Kyle Kalman with the VFW speaks at the introduction ceremony for the Major Richard A. Star Act in Rep. Gus Bilirakis' office on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)
Kyle Kalman with the VFW speaks at the introduction ceremony for the Major Richard A. Star Act in Rep. Gus Bilirakis' office on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (Dylan Gresik/Staff)

From its inception, Bilirakis’ legislation has been supported by a wide array of veterans’ service organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Fleet Reserve Association, Wounded Warrior Project, TREA: The Enlisted Association, Military Officers Association of America, and the National Military Family Association.

“I think it’s very fitting, particularly as a fellow Army officer, that we have a combat engineer who’s responsible for route clearance, helping us clear the path,” said retired Lt. Col. Mark Belinsky, director of currently serving and retired affairs at MOAA. “It is absolutely very fitting for you to help clear this road for this portion of concurrent receipt. It’s a clear injustice.”

“Thank you, [Richard Star], for sharing your story and using your struggle as an opportunity to help other people,” said Aleks Morosky, government affairs specialist with Wounded Warrior Project. “I can only imagine what it’s like to have your military career cut short and then to be hit with the bad news that your military retirement will be cut short. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The bill has received bipartisan support from cosponsor Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who previously led an effort to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act to acknowledge cancers caused by burn pit exposure.

Neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs have yet to affirm the connection between exposure to burn pits and various cancers.

At the unveiling event, Bilirakis said a Senate companion bill will soon be introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and the congressman vowed to personally bring up the matter with President Donald Trump.

“These brave men and women who return from serving our country should be able to receive the benefits promised to them,” Bilirakis said. “We’re going to get this done this year. We must get this done.”

Editors’ note: This story has been updated to reflect the legislation’s current sponsors in the Senate.

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