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Jon Tester, Mike Crapo lead bipartisan effort to give full benefits to all combat-injured veterans

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks to reporters Tuesday outside the U.S. Capitol about the Major Richard Star Act.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – A bill to give full military benefits to all veterans injured in combat will be the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s top legislative priority this year, the Montana Democrat who heads the VA panel and who sponsored the bill with an Idaho Republican said Tuesday.

The bill, reintroduced Feb. 9 by Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Mike Crapo of Idaho, would let all veterans with combat-related injuries receive military retirement benefits along with disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently, veterans who are wounded and forced to retire with less than 20 years of service can collect only VA disability payments.

“Does that sound right to you?” Tester said to reporters and veterans’ advocates gathered outside the Capitol. “It sure as hell doesn’t sound right to me. It’s unacceptable. And whenever I see troops or veterans or families being nickel-and-dimed, we’re going to take on anybody in Washington to make sure this wrong is righted.”

The legislation is named for Richard Star, a retired Army major who died in 2021 after a battle with lung cancer linked to the toxic burn pits that were the focus of the landmark bill Congress passed in 2022 known as the PACT Act. It expanded VA benefits for veterans exposed to toxins during their military service. Advocates hope the same coalition of lawmakers and veterans’ organizations who got the PACT Act over the finish line after years of work can do the same with the benefits bill.

“More than 50,000 veterans, including hundreds in Idaho, could benefit from the Major Richard Star Act,” Crapo said in a statement. “To honor the service of all veterans and Major Star’s enduring legacy, we must meet the responsibility of ensuring these combat-injured veterans receive the full benefits they have earned. Reducing retirement pay because of a combat disability is an injustice that must be corrected.”

Crapo had planned to attend the news conference with Tester but came down with a case of COVID-19, his spokeswoman Melanie Lawhorn said.

Josh Callihan, a retired Marine Corps corporal who was born in Spokane and grew up in Post Falls, is one of the veterans who would benefit from the legislation. He was forced to retire in 2001 after friendly fire on the Iraq-Kuwait border left him partially paralyzed a year earlier.

“Having this pass and receiving my retirement pay in addition to my VA pay would make a substantial difference in our life,” said Callihan, who lives in Boise with his wife and their two daughters. “I think it’d be important to be able to show the veterans, the people who sacrificed for our country, that our government appreciates their sacrifice and is willing to pay those veterans what they deserve.”

Callihan now works as the spokesman for the Boise VA Medical Center, but he spoke with The Spokesman-Review in a personal capacity.

Despite broad bipartisan support – it was cosponsored by more than half of members in both the House and Senate – the bill failed to pass in 2022 after a budget rule blocked its inclusion in the annual defense authorization bill.

This year, the bill has already been cosponsored by nearly half of the Senate, including Crapo’s fellow Idaho Republican Jim Risch and Washington Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

A cost estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the bill would cost about $7 billion over 10 years, Tester spokeswoman Olya Voytovich said.

“People are going to argue that this costs too much money to do,” Tester said. “And I respect that, except for the fact that if we’re going to send them off to war, we take care of them when they get home, otherwise we shouldn’t send them off to war to begin with.”

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican who has sponsored the bill in the House and spoke with Tester at the news conference on Tuesday, echoed that sentiment.

“If we’re going to spend money, we’re going to spend it on true American heroes,” Bilirakis said. “They earned this. Again, this is a priority of ours. This is the right thing to do.”