(This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
Army Col. Ken Nance was atop scaffolding in Afghanistan when his heart temporarily stopped beating.
Nance, who was serving as a deputy commander in the Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Division, fell off scaffolding at Bagram Airfield, breaking his jaw and severely injuring his left foot. The incident left him with nerve damage in his back and legs as well as a brain injury that makes simple tasks a chore. He was forced to medically retire.
The brain injury often makes Nance tired in the morning and has affected his speech and memory. Due to his foot injury, Nance also has to rely on a therapy dog to help him maneuver through his home.
To add insult to injury, the Mississippi native with five tours of duty is being penalized financially due to the rules of concurrent receipt. After medically retiring in 2019 — seven years before he was eligible for full retirement — Nance receives only 60% of his retirement income; 40% of his vested retirement pay is offset — reduced dollar for dollar for disability because of an old, unjust law.
He would love to see the rules change so that retired veterans injured in combat would be eligible for all of their retirement in addition to their disability pay. Proposed legislation, called the Major Richard Star Act, would do exactly that.
[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your Lawmakers to Support the Major Richard Star Act]
The legislation is named after Nance’s friend, Rich Star, who advocated for the change before dying in February 2021 from lung cancer due to toxic exposure as a combat engineer while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because Star did not reach 20 years of service due to his combat related illness, he was subject to the offset that required his DoD retirement pay to fund his VA disability compensation.
“I want to honor Rich Star. I want to keep being part of his legacy by bringing these things to light,” said Nance, who enlisted prior to 9/11 and served five years on active duty with the Mississippi National Guard before being commissioned as an engineering officer. “I also want to make sure we are remembering the many, many others that are struggling every day.”
The Major Richard Star Act (S. 344 and H.R. 1282) would support Nance and more than 50,300 combat-injured veterans by allowing them to receive both their vested longevity pay and VA disability.
Real Life Changes
Before his injury, Nance was planning on finishing Army War College and returning to Huntsville, Ala., as a program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Everything was rolling right along,” said Nance, who was inducted into the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame in 2021. “The Lord was blessing us, and things were going well. And then I get hurt in Afghanistan. I was like, ‘What in the world?’
“I was 50 years old when it happened. The doctors told me if I was 25 years old, I may see some real improvement. But at this point in my life, I just try to manage it.”
Injuries like Nance’s can profoundly impact not just a veteran’s own military and civilian careers but their spouse’s as well. When Nance was unable to work for the Army Corps of Engineers, his wife, Mechonne, had to quit her job to become his full-time caretaker. Still, Nance feels lucky knowing that many veterans with similar injuries are in much worse financial shape when they medically retire due to their lower rank.
[LEARN MORE: MOAA’s Concurrent Receipt Resources and Advocacy Updates]
“I can make some discretionary income cuts to a certain point, but [with this injury], I still had to make some real life changes,” Nance said. “And if I am making those real life changes, I know everybody else below me is making as much or more real life changes.”
Changing the rules of concurrent receipt is also a safety net for those thinking about joining the reserves in particular, said Nance, who served in both reserve and active-duty capacity. Many reservists have careers outside of the military but feel compelled to serve their nation, said Nance.
“There are many civilians who can bring great life skills and management skills to the military, which helps them become better servicemembers,” said Nance. “We don’t want to make it unappealing [to join the military].”
Seeking Justice for Many
Nance remains hopeful that the legislation will pass and that the financial picture will improve for so many other combat-injured veterans.
“In my heart, I don’t think the rule was ill intentioned,” Nance said of the legislation that passed in 2004 establishing concurrent receipt for those who reached 20 years of service and had a 50% disability rating or more.
“Until we really saw the impacts on individuals, maybe we were unaware. I just applaud what MOAA is doing to try to bring awareness to this issue. It’s not about me, but I do want to be part of a solution,” Nance said.
[READ THE ISSUE PAPER: Support the Major Richard Star Act (PDF Download)]
“The brave men and women who return from serving our country should be able to receive the benefits promised to them,” said Major Richard Star Act sponsor Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla). “Military retirement pay and service-connected disability compensation are two completely different benefits. One does not diminish the merits of the other. I am committed to rectifying this injustice for all veterans, and passage of the Major Richard Star Act will get us one step closer to our goal of ensuring that veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve.”
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