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Congress must provide disabled veterans what they have earned

Tens of thousands of military members forced to retire after combat-related injuries suffer a lifelong financial injustice: They must forfeit part of their vested retirement pay to receive disability compensation. Reducing the retirement pay of combat-disabled veterans is as wrong as it sounds, and Congress must act on pending legislation to correct this inequity.

When a service member retires from the military with at least 20 years of service, he or she is entitled to receive retired pay from the Department of Defense (DOD). Medical retirees forced to leave service before the 20-year mark because of a combat injury receive retirement pay, but they are forced to give up $1 of their vested longevity pay from the DOD for every dollar of disability compensation they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Thankfully, the Major Richard Star Act would repeal the unfair offset that prevents more than 50,000 veterans living with the wounds of war from accessing both their disability benefits and retirement pay.

The proposed legislation is named after Major Star, an Army Reservist and combat engineer who led route clearance and construction missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Engineers were in high demand as our nation worked hard to open roads and build infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many volunteered to serve rather than focus on lucrative jobs at home.

Star, like many from the reserve component, deployed several times during the long wars. Because of his combat-related injury and illness, Star was forced to medically retire before he could complete 20 years of service. Accordingly, his retired pay from the DOD was reduced dollar-for-dollar from his VA disability pay.

Star learned about this reduction in retirement pay from his hospital bed in Walter Reed after his last deployment to Iraq. Driven to represent his fellow wounded warriors and the friends he made in the ward during his extended stay at Walter Reed, he started visiting offices in the House and Senate office buildings. Although he struggled to make it down the halls, often out of breath, he pushed Congress to introduce legislation that would remedy this offset provision. Unfortunately, Star passed away in February 2021.

Retirement pay and VA disability compensation are distinct, separate benefits veterans earn through their service — two different forms of compensation for two different purposes. However, these benefits have been unjustly tied together to reduce costs. It’s the only such offset in the entire federal compensation system.

Reducing retirement pay due to a combat injury is clearly an injustice for combat-injured veterans, many of whom require full-time care. Spouses and family members often give up their jobs to help their loved one, as Star’s wife did, increasing a family’s financial stress and making the repeal of this practice all the more necessary.

There is clearly bipartisan support for this proposed legislation: It had 221 co-sponsors in the House and 59 in the Senate as of May 5. Cresting 290 in the House and 60 in the Senate is within reach and critical to the bill’s eventual passage.

The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) supports the Major Richard Star Act alongside its fellow advocacy groups. MOAA has made this proposed legislation one of its top advocacy issues this year. Hundreds of MOAA members have brought the issue to their representatives and their legislative staffs, and thousands more have sent letters advocating for its passage.

Congress must make certain our veterans are not shortchanged by unfair rules that cancel out one earned benefit so they can receive another. Our veterans should not be pushed aside because they were injured in war. Regardless of time in service, these veterans have earned all their benefits through their extraordinary sacrifice in defending our nation. Our combat-injured service members deserve better.

Tom Jurkowsky is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who served on active duty for 31 years. He is a member of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) board of directors.  

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to clarify the dollar-for-dollar reduction.

Tags Disability benefits

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