TRENTON – Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jim Beach and Senator Fred Madden introduced a package of five bills to support Gold Star families throughout New Jersey.
“Supporting our Gold Star families, whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, is our duty,” said Senator Beach (D-Burlington, Camden). “We owe our fallen heroes a debt of gratitude for their selfless service and must honor that sacrifice by providing for their families.”
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.
“By offering New Jersey’s Gold Star families the support and resources they need, we are also honoring their loved ones and showing our gratitude for the sacrifices they made for our country and our freedom,” said Senator Madden (D-Camden, Gloucester). “This bill package will have a far-reaching impact in easing the burdens of families left behind after such a great loss.”
The first bill 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 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.
“Offering a helping hand to surviving Gold Star family members to pursue a college education without bearing the burden of enormous financial debt is a small token of appreciation to help them stand on their own,” said Senator Beach.
The third bill 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 five 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 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.
“Navigating the network of available services can be exhausting and time-consuming,” said Senator Madden. “Creating a one-stop shop, where Gold Star families can access valuable information on available resources, will prove effective at connecting families with the resources they need.”
The final bill 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.
“Family members left behind following their loved one’s untimely death are left with deep emotional scars, and presenting them with an opportunity to begin their healing is both honorable and the right thing to do,” said 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.