When a Purple Heart recipient named Pat reached out to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in November to inform her that he couldn’t transfer his GI bill benefits to his children, he wasn’t expecting congressional action to solve the problem.

He simply just wanted to let the Washington state Democrat know, he told States Newsroom in an exclusive interview.

With a child about to head to college, Pat, who didn’t want his last name used, had recently been told by the Army that he couldn’t transfer his education benefits to them because he received the Purple Heart after he was medically discharged. This rule does not apply to those who receive the medal while still in service.

Murray and Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, introduced a bipartisan bill Thursday aimed at closing that loophole.

The legislation, titled the Purple Heart Veterans Education Act, would permit retroactive award recipients who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to transfer their education benefits to one or more dependents. It was unveiled just ahead of Memorial Day, when the nation honors its deceased service members.

“As the daughter of a Purple Heart recipient, I’ve seen firsthand the enormous sacrifices Purple Heart veterans make to defend our freedoms, and I feel strongly that we should be doing absolutely everything we can to help all veterans and their families thrive,” Murray said in a statement Thursday.

“It doesn’t make any sense that service members who are awarded a Purple Heart after their service can’t transfer their GI benefits to their dependents, while those who receive it during their service can — and I am grateful to Pat, my constituent in Washington state who brought this gap in the law to my attention,” continued Murray, a senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

“Our legislation will close this loophole and allow more children of Purple Heart veterans to further their education. I want to thank Senator Tillis for joining me on this legislation and I’ll be working hard to get it passed into law.”

Glitch in education benefits

Pat was medically discharged from the U.S. Army and retroactively received a Purple Heart for his actions during Iran’s retaliatory missile barrage in January 2020 on an Iraq airbase, after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Army later approved 39 Purple Hearts for service members who experienced the attack, according to a December 2021 report by Army Times.

As his teenager looks to enroll at Central Washington University next year, Pat found out that by law his education benefits would only be available for transfer if he had received the award while still in service.

“My thought was, ‘I doubt that legislators would have done that intentionally.’ I just thought, you know, people probably just didn’t think about how that happens — that some people are going to get retroactive Purple Hearts, or for whatever reason in evaluating them, they’re delayed. So it’s not like an unusual thing,” Pat said in a phone interview.

“I wasn’t thinking much was going to happen, but I just wanted to write Senator Murray, who is my local senator, and let her know the issue. They responded by saying, ‘That’s an oversight on our part, and we want to make good on that.’”

Pat said he’s “grateful for Sen. Murray” and hopes his action is able to help other Purple Heart veterans. For now, his family is moving forward with the college enrollment process for his child, he said.

Benefits and dependents

Among the provisions in the legislation, Murray and Tillis’ bill would also allow veterans to split up 36 months worth of benefits to each of their dependents. For example, they could transfer 20 months to one and 16 months to another.

The bill, if enacted, would also prohibit the benefits from being treated as marital property or a marital estate asset.

And, the bill would permit dependents to access unused benefits if their veteran family member has died.

“Purple Heart recipients are heroes who honorably served our country at great costs, and this oversight that prevents service members who received this distinguished award after their service from transferring their GI bill benefits to their dependents needs to be corrected immediately,” Tillis said in a statement Thursday.

“I am proud to co-introduce this commonsense legislation with Senator Murray to close this loophole and ensure every Purple Heart recipient and dependents are able to further their education,” continued Tillis, who also sits on the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The number of veterans who retroactively received the Purple Heart after their post-9/11 service is unclear. The bill is estimated to cost $500,000 in mandatory spending over 10 years, according to an informal analysis provided to Murray’s office by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill has received praise from veterans groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“Unfortunately, not every veteran’s service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States of America is fully recognized while they’re still in uniform,” IAVA CEO and Iraq War veteran Allison Jaslow said in a statement Thursday.

“The Purple Heart Veterans Education Act ensures that those veterans who’ve endured bodily harm on behalf of our nation, but weren’t recognized for it until their service concluded, are able to turn that recognition into an investment in the education of their loved ones.”

More Purple Heart recipients

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have “greatly increased” the number of Purple Heart recipients as the Department of Defense has added some traumatic brain injuries as a recognized condition for the award, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

It wasn’t until a 2017 law that Purple Heart recipients were able to receive full post-9/11 GI Bill benefits regardless of their length of service. Previously, the recipients had to have 36 months of active service.

The Department of Defense does not maintain a record of the number of recipients, according to the CRS, but by law they do maintain a publicly accessible list with the permission of the veteran or next of kin.

Military historians and the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor estimate about 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since 1932. The Army Historical Foundation estimated as of 2016 that 30,000 Purple Hearts had been awarded since 2001. The CRS cited this statistic.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

This article originally published on Washington State Standard as “As Memorial Day arrives, bill unveiled in Congress to assist Purple Heart recipients.” Military Times has edited the headline.

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