Retired Army Maj. Richard Star, 51, passed away early Saturday morning after a years-long battle with lung cancer linked to burn pit exposure on deployments.
A former combat engineer with multiple overseas tours, Star spent the last months of his life advocating for disabled and medically retired veterans.
“Rich Star saved countless lives by clearing roads in Afghanistan of IEDs, and now in his legacy he’s still working to clear the road for concurrent receipt for his fellow servicemembers,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Belinsky, director of currently serving and retired affairs for the Military Officers Association of America.
Chapter 61 retirees, like Star, are service members who were medically retired due to injuries sustained on duty prior to achieving 20 years in service.
Under current laws, such retirees are not eligible for concurrent receipt, meaning their military longevity pay is reduced by the amount of VA disability compensation they receive.
Service members have earned both their retirement pay and their disability compensation, Belinsky said, and having one shouldn’t mean receiving less of the other.
The Major Richard Star Act, introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., on Feb. 27, 2020, would have secured the right of concurrent receipt for approximately 43,000 Chapter 61 retirees injured in combat zones.
Although it received support in both houses of Congress, the act failed to pass last year.
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, alongside Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Bilirakis plan to reintroduce the Major Richard Star Act on Feb. 22, according to Belinsky.
Chapter 61 retirees injured in a combat zone make up only a small portion of the total veterans ineligible for concurrent receipt, however.
“The whole concurrent receipt problem has an estimated $33 billion price tag on it,” said Belinsky. “So, the smallest increment to chip away at the larger concurrent receipt injustice is the Major Richard Star Act, which is targeting those injured in combat.”
Star joined the Army in 1988. His first deployment was in support of Operation Desert/Desert Storm. He later deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, performing road construction and IED clearance operations.
On his last deployment, Star began having difficulties with breathing and coughing blood. Doctors in Kuwait downplayed his health issues and blamed them on air quality and asthma.
When he returned stateside in 2018, Star discovered that he had stage four lung cancer. While going through surgeries and chemotherapy, he learned that he would not concurrently receive his retirement and disability pay through the DoD.
“When we lose somebody to combat, that’s one thing, but to lose somebody to negligence, to medical malpractice that’s easily preventable… is shameful and an injustice in itself,” said Natalie Khawam, Star’s lawyer.
Khawam worked in 2019 to pass the SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act, which secures active-duty service members the right to compensation for medical malpractice in military facilities — medical malpractice like downplaying respiratory issues.
Star and his lawyer had filed claims under the act, but the Defense Department has delayed the creation of rules and processes to adjudicate and pay claims under the act, according to Khawam.
Such rules were initially expected on Jun. 30, 2020, but the DoD has repeatedly extended its deadline, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential transition for the delays.
Khawam was outraged to see Star pass away before compensation could be secured for his wife and family under the SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act.
“Their negligence has cost these service members their health, their lives. They have a duty to fix it, and now there’s no accountability for the accountability,” she said. “What are you saying when you delay somebody’s right to be made whole, when you deny somebody’s claims and their compensation?”
Both Belinsky and Khawam assured that their fights are far from over.
“It was an honor to represent [Richard] and serve him, but his passing isn’t the end of my job, it’s just the beginning,” said Khawam. “It’s given me more reason and ambition to fight for what they deserve.”
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.