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TRENTON – A package of five bills sponsored by Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jim Beach and Senator Fred Madden to support Gold Star families throughout New Jersey cleared the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee today.

“Providing our Gold Star families, whose loved ones lost their lives serving our country, with the resources they need is an expression of gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice they made,” said Senator Beach (D-Burlington, Camden). “We owe it to our fallen heroes to honor their families, and that is the goal of this package of legislation.”

A Gold Star family member is defined as a parent, spouse, domestic or civil union partner, sibling, child, legal guardian, or other legal custodian, whole or half blood or by adoption, of a service member killed while in active duty.

“New Jersey’s Gold Star families deserve our support, and alleviating their burdens after such a tremendous loss will have a far-reaching impact,” said Senator Madden (D-Camden, Gloucester). “These bills aim to provide meaningful resources to families who have paid the highest price for our nation and freedom.”

The first bill (S-2854) authorizes the Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission to approve and issue driver’s licenses and identification cards with a Gold Star Family designation, and would enable family members to access benefits from the state. These benefits include free or reduced admission to state parks, beaches and museums, and waivers of licensing fees for professional and occupational licensing boards.

The second bill (S-2865) would establish a scholarship program for Gold Star family members to attend an institution of higher education. The Higher Education Student Assistance Authority would be responsible for establishing eligibility criteria and determining the amount of each scholarship award, subject to limitations in the provisions of the legislation.

“We recognize that attending college can be financially burdensome, but we also know that it allows individuals to advance their careers and earn a higher income in the long run,” said Senator Beach. “Enabling surviving Gold Star family members to pursue a college education is a small token of appreciation to help them stand on their own.”

The third bill (S-2856) in the package would require the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to notify county Veterans Affairs offices, not just the State veterans’ service office currently required under law, within ten days of being notified of the death of a New Jersey service member, and would require every county to have a designated volunteer Gold Star Family Liaison to assist families in accessing the services, benefits and resources available to them.

The fourth bill (S-2857) would require the Adjutant General to create a public webpage with information specifically for Gold Star families. The comprehensive webpage would include such information as available state benefits, state and county liaisons, a list of service members killed in action and links to other Gold Star family organizations.

“Creating a one-stop resource center of available services will save our Gold Star family members time and effort in navigating through what can sometimes feel like a daunting network of information,” said Senator Madden.

The final bill (S-2858) would create a Gold Star Family Counseling Program in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to link mental health care professionals with Gold Star family members to facilitate mental health counseling free of charge. The bill would also create a tax credit for mental health care professionals who donate their time to the program. Under the bill, the amount of annual tax credit would be determined by the department as the sum of the hours of donated counseling provided to the Gold Star family member multiplied by the documented compensation rate applied to these hours, with limits imposed on cumulative hours.

“Providing a pathway for family members to cope with the deep scars left behind following the untimely death of a loved one will allow them to lead healthier lives, both emotionally and physically,” added Senator Beach.

The term Gold Star family is a modern reference that comes from the Service Flag, first flown by families during World War I. The flag included a blue star for every immediate family member serving in the armed forces during any period of war or hostilities in which the U.S. armed forces were engaged. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold star.

The bills all cleared the committee. Bills S-2854, S-2857, S-2858 and S-2865 next head to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration. Bill S-2856 next heads to the full Senate for a vote.

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