The family members and surviving spouses of troops killed in action or who die from other causes while serving in the military deserve to know where they stand when it comes to state and federal benefits. 

Legislation scheduled for a Sept. 10 hearing on Beacon Hill would define a Gold Star family member as a parent or spouse of someone in the armed forces who dies from injuries, illness or disease contracted while serving, but not if the death is “due to gross negligence or misconduct by the member during active service.”

This is an important definition for these families since the Gold Star classification entitles them to $2,000 annual payments from the state; state and local property tax breaks; federal survivor benefits; and lifetime annuities based on a percentage of the service members’ pay when they died.

The state Department of Veterans’ Services gives benefits to some family members of people in the military whose deaths are “service related,” but the state has not crafted a formal definition of what that means. That can lead to confusion when it comes to seeking benefits. Some lawmakers and veterans groups are pushing for a clear definition that would cover any service member who dies on active duty – not just in combat. 

Although Rep. Jerry Parisella, D-Beverly, a 24-year veteran of the Army Reserve, isn’t a co-signer of the legislation, he said he thinks the state should look at broadening the definition. He also said he expects some to question where to draw the line, especially when the discussion takes into account deaths that occur years after a person returns to civilian life.

“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 told reporter Christian Wade, referring to illnesses that resulted from exposure to the defoliant used widely in Vietnam. “There’s long-term implications.”

The rules for qualifying as a Gold Star family member need to be as clear as possible, but also well defined to include those who lost a relative to combat injuries, an accident or illness contracted while serving, or as a result of service to their country. This clarity will serve the interest of taxpayers and properly compensate the survivors of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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