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Veterans exposed to burn pits, toxins urged to apply for retroactive benefits

A soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA) walks past a burn pit at a command outpost recently handed over to the ANA from the United States Army on March 22, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Zhari District, Afghanistan. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

A deadline for a year’s worth of backdated benefits is fast approaching for U.S. veterans suffering illnesses after exposure to open burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxins.

Nearly a year ago, President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act, a law supporters describe as the largest expansion of veteran benefits in U.S. history. The law eases the path to expanded coverage, alleviating veterans from having to prove conditions like respiratory illness and cancer are a result of breathing toxic burn pit fumes or exposure to radiation or chemicals like tactical herbicides.

There is no deadline for qualifying veterans to file under the PACT Act, but former service members or their surviving family members have until Aug. 9 to claim benefits that date back to the law’s enactment in August 2022.

“The law helps us to provide generations of veterans and their survivors with the care and benefits that they certainly deserve and have earned,” Mike Walljasper, assistant Veteran Service Center manager at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Wednesday on a call with reporters hosted by the office of Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat.

As of mid-July, 371,716 veterans and 7,715 survivors had completed PACT Act-related claims. Just under 80% have been approved, according to the latest data from the VA.

Up to 3.5 million post-9/11 former service members could be eligible, according to lawmakers and veterans organizations. While there are an estimated 355,000 veterans in Maryland, the total number of PACT Act claims from the state was just over 14,000 in mid-July.

The PACT Act also expands VA eligibility for those who served in the Persian Gulf War, served active duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between 1953 and 1987, participated in chemical or biological warfare testing at the Deseret Test Center in Fort Douglas, Utah from 1962 to 1973, including Project 112 and “Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense,” participated in radiation-risk activities during active or inactive duty, or those exposed to a dioxin or a toxic substance found in herbicides or defoliants during the Vietnam era.

The VA has hired thousands of claims processors to support the effort, Walljasper said.

The law presumes several disease and illness categories are related to service in qualifying locations or operations.

“That simply means that the veteran is not required to prove that active military service caused their condition that they’re trying to be service connected for,” Walljasper said. “Basically it takes a step away so that we can grant a benefit to that veteran.”

Some of the presumptive conditions “of note” for Vietnam-era veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange have included hypertension. For many Persian Gulf veterans, VA staff are seeing numerous claims for respiratory illnesses and cancer, Walljasper said.

Lawmakers flag deadline

Many lawmakers have issued statements, posted on social media and conducted other outreach to flag the Aug. 9 deadline for retroactive benefits.

“We passed the PACT Act last summer to finally give all generations of toxic-exposed veterans and their families the care and benefits they have earned. Now it’s critically important folks apply for that expanded support, and August 9th is a big deadline,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and original co-sponsor of the legislation.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, another original co-sponsor, held in-person info sessions through the spring and summer.

“Too many veterans who were exposed to toxins in the line of duty were not getting the benefits and treatment they earned,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas and original backer of the bill, posted a deadline reminder late Wednesday on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

The legislation received broad bipartisan support in both chambers during the summer of 2022 but was held up for weeks at the tail end of the process after retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, rallied GOP colleagues to block a final procedural vote as a protest to funding language that had been in the bill all along.

The delay sparked a days-long campout on the Capitol steps by veterans, their families and comedian Jon Stewart, who took up the cause.

The $280 billion measure eventually passed the Senate in an 86-11 vote.

How to find more information and apply

Veterans who think they may be eligible should sign up to participate in a Toxic Exposure Screening, which the VA describes as a roughly 10-minute process.

Staff have conducted over 4 million screenings as of mid-July, and 1.7 million veterans identified at least one toxic exposure event, according to VA data.

“So many Virginia veterans are already benefiting from the PACT Act,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from the commonwealth and original co-sponsor, said in a statement Wednesday. “I urge veterans who may have been exposed to toxins during their service to visit www.va.gov/PACT to see if they’re eligible under the PACT Act and apply by August 9, so they can get benefits backdated to when we passed the law last year.”

For veterans who do not yet have claims ready, they can submit an intent to file, which is “basically a placeholder” in line, Walljasper said.

Veterans can also call 1-800-MyVA411, or 1-800-698-2411, or find a walk-in location.

The VA has published a guide to help veterans assess their eligibility for the expanded benefits.

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Veterans exposed to burn pits, toxins urged to apply for retroactive benefits