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Toxic Burn Pits: What Vets Need to Know About the PACT Act

New legislation could benefit 5 million who served in Vietnam, Gulf War and post-9/11

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Paul Spella (Source Images: Left to Right: Getty Images; Stuart Lutz/Gado/Getty Images; Getty Images;; Solider: Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/USAF/Handout via REUTERS; Fire: Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez/U.S. Marines/Handout via REUTERS; Getty Images)

When Mark Jackson went running at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, he would taste plastic and jet fuel in his mouth from a burn pit the size of two football fields, where toxic military refuse was incinerated 24/7, showering ash down on soldiers’ tents and skin.

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“The smoke would burn so thick sometimes that you couldn’t see one side of the valley,” the Army veteran, who served four combat tours, told AARP Veteran Report. He is now board chair of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, which helps post-9/11 veterans.

Exposure to toxins from burn pits, radiation and other hazards, from the Vietnam era to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has led to millions of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims for service-related injuries. Around 70 percent of the claims were denied, until now.

The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act is named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, a medic who died from a rare form of lung cancer. It expands coverage to some 5 million veterans.

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More than 20 conditions are now given presumptive status, meaning veterans are eligible for care without proving their disease was service-related, which should cut paperwork and wait times. The list includes 11 respiratory conditions and several forms of cancer.

Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange have two new presumptive conditions: high blood pressure and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance. Veterans who served at an additional five locations are now assumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange if they were at those locations during specified periods.

Post-9/11 exposure sites include Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen. Gulf War veterans are also covered. Gulf War and post-9/11-era sites include Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the UAE. Being in airspace above these countries also counts.

2. Apply again

Veterans who were previously denied but think they may now qualify are urged to file a supplemental claim. Post-9/11 veterans will be able to apply for VA care for up to 10 years after their service ended, extending the end of service period from five years. If you were discharged or released before Oct. 1, 2013, you may still be eligible during a one-year enrollment period that starts Oct. 1, 2022.

3. Get screened

The new law requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled. It will train staff on treatment related to toxic exposures. The VA will also gather data about veterans’ conditions and conduct studies to add new presumptive conditions to the list.

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4. Prepare, but be patient

The new law includes a “phase-in” for veterans to gain access to VA health care over the next 10 years, meaning not all veterans are eligible just yet. Veterans will be phased in over two-year increments based on their discharge dates, locations and toxic exposure risk activity. “It means that help is coming, and you can mark your calendar,” said Jackson.

5. Survivors get benefits too

Survivors may be eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation, a one-time accrued benefits payment, health care through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA), and a burial allowance for paying funeral costs. Survivors will also get life and home loan insurance and tuition.

Abraham Mahshie was previously the Pentagon editor for Air Force Magazine. As a journalist for two decades, he has covered national security and politics across the U.S. and Latin America and has also worked as a defense contractor. The son of a Vietnam veteran, he grew up in Miami.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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