A chance at a family isn't something you normally find on a wedding registry. But that's what Tyler Wilson and Crystal Black are asking for, since the government doesn't pay for in vitro fertilization for troops who can't conceive naturally due to combat injuries.
Wilson, a former soldier, was shot while serving in Afghanistan in 2005. One of the bullets penetrated his spinal canal and left him paralyzed and unable to have children naturally.
When he met Black in 2013, the two began looking into conceiving a child through in vitro fertilization, but were shocked to find that the Veterans Affairs Department did not cover the costly procedure, even though it was directly related to the severe injuries Wilson sustained in combat.
"It was very disheartening and a bit of a slap in the face," Wilson said. "Thanks for your service but you're on your own with this one."
Unable to cover the $40,000 price tag of one round of IVF, Black and Wilson, who are set to be married July 1, set up an online fundraiser where friends and family helped raise almost $7,000, and applied for several grants. About $14,000, however, will come out of their own pocket, and they only have enough money for one attempt.
Black and Wilson are heading to Capitol Hill this week, before the wedding, to tell lawmakers their story and try to make sure no other veterans with these types of combat related injures have to self-fund their family.
A provision allowing the VA to pay for IVF for vets whose service-connected injuries make conceiving naturally impossible is included in the fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., passed the committee by a 23-7 bipartisan vote last month. It now heads to the full Senate, where Black and Wilson hope they can raise awareness among senators to ensure it passes.
"The men and women of our military put their lives on the line to protect our country, our freedoms, and our way of life, and I strongly believe we must fulfill our promise to take care of them when they return. Providing that care, especially to those who suffered injuries on behalf of our country, should never be a partisan issue," Murray told the Washington Examiner in a statement.
The use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased the number of troops who suffer injuries to the genitalia. In past wars, these troops might have died and never had the option of starting a family, but advances in battlefield medicine mean more injured veterans now face this reality.
The VA covers some fertility treatments, but they often don't go far enough to help seriously injured veterans, according to a release from Murray's office.
The senator has tried to pass language to allow the VA to fund IVF several times in the past. She last had to pull the provision from the Women Veterans and Families Services Act in July, when Republicans tried to tie amendments to the provision that would have prevented the VA from working with Planned Parenthood.
The amendment would authorize $18 million in fiscal 2017 and $70 million in fiscal 2018 to cover fertility services. A Congressional Budget Office estimate for a similar proposal in the past estimated that around 6,000 service members and spouses would use the new benefits annually.
Tracy Kiel, who paid $32,000 out of pocket to have her 5-and-a-half year old twin boys, said you can't put a price on the happiness her children bring to both her and her husband, Matt, who was shot in the neck in 2007 and paralyzed from the waist down just six weeks after they were married.
"There is no amount of money in the world," said Kiel, who will also be lobbying Congress this week. "I guarantee if you were to ask every taxpayer if they were willing to put up a couple bucks for that vet to have a child, I guarantee you they would all say yes."
The Defense Department does cover IVF services for active-duty troops and their spouses who were severely injured, but many of those with the worst injuries must medically retire. The time they are on active duty between the injury and retirement is spent learning how to walk, feed themselves and function for the rest of their lives, not worrying about starting a family, Kiel said.
"In those nine months, I was worried about learning how to work a ventilator and learning to take care of him the rest of my life," she said. "I wasn't ready to go down the road of, well, we better hurry up and have kids since the DoD program is only for active duty."
Kiel said she and her husband have been trying to raise awareness of the issue and fight for better coverage for almost nine years. While the bill being considered by the Senate wouldn't make a difference for her family, she said she'll continue fighting until future families, like Black and Wilson, don't have to shoulder the financial burden themselves.
"It's just our way of paying it forward to help the next person. It's very important that each generation of veterans helps the next," she said.