Karen Lounsbury’s 18-year-old son Bryan died while on active duty in the U.S. Army more than a decade ago, but despite her loss, the state did not initially recognize her as a “Gold Star” parent.
The Department of Veterans’ Services gives benefits to certain family members of armed forces members whose deaths are “service related,” but Massachusetts is one a dozen states without a formal definition of what that means, which has caused confusion. Lounsbury’s son was not killed in action.
Lawmakers and veterans groups are pushing for clarity with a definition that would cover any service member who dies on active duty, not just in combat.
“The goal is to make the definition more inclusive,” said Lounsbury, president of the Boston chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers Inc. “There are a lot of Gold Star families in Massachusetts whose loved ones weren’t killed in action.”
A proposal filed by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, and Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, would define a Gold Star family member as a “parent” or “spouse” of someone in the armed forces “whose death occurred as a result of injury sustained, illness or disease contracted, not due to gross negligence or misconduct of the member, during active service.”
Peggy Griffin, president of the Gold Star Wives of Massachusetts, said a definition would clear up confusion among those unsure if they qualify for benefits because their family member wasn’t killed in combat.
“These are people who took the same oath and died as a result of service to their country,” she said.
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who chairs the committee, said she’s heard from both sides of the “emotional issue” and expects a passionate debate.
Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, a 24-year veteran of the Army Reserves, isn’t a co-signer to the proposals but said he believes the state should consider broadening its definition.
Parisella, who previously chaired the veteran affairs committee, said he expects opponents to question “where the line is drawn” but said it’s an issue that needs to be explored.
“If you look at Gold Star families, there are members whose loved ones died years after serving in Vietnam, as a result of Agent Orange,” he said. “There’s long-term implications.”
Massachusetts boasts some of the most generous benefits for veterans and their families including state and local tax breaks, tuition assistance and hiring preference.
Gold Star families — including unmarried partners of service members who died in combat — are entitled to a $2,000 annual payment from the state as well as local property tax breaks.
An estimated 2,400 spouses and parents collect the Gold Star Family annuity, according to veterans’ services.
Families also receive federal survivor benefits; the death gratuity program allows a one-time, tax-free payment of $100,000 to eligible survivors of service members who’ve died on active duty or while serving in some reserve statuses. The Defense Department also pays under a survivor benefit plan a lifetime annuity based on a percentage of pay.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s tax overhaul has forced some Gold Star families to pay thousands of dollars more in federal taxes on their benefits.
The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased taxes on certain payments to survivors of the fallen, primarily children who receive survivor benefits from the Defense Department.
These benefits were previously taxed at 12% to 15%, but now are taxed at 37% — the rate used to calculate taxes on income from trusts and estates.
Lawmakers are seeking to repeal that provision, but the plan is bogged down in partisan bickering between the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and GOP-led Senate.