Signed into law on August 8, the PACT [Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics] Act is offering retribution to veterans who have suffered long-term effects of being exposed to burn pits in war, an issue that has been going on for years and veterans rights activists have long been trying to get support for. Now that the bipartisan bill has been passed, we should take a look at the effects of war, why burn pits have been deemed a silent killer and how a lack of information regarding these issues can be detrimental.

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The PACT Act & Its History 

The PACT Act [according to the White House sheet], is an expansion of the benefits provided to American Veterans who have been exposed to toxins. This act will ensure that veterans can access quality health care screenings and services tied to toxic exposures. It will also expand access to healthcare services for veterans who were exposed during military service. The PACT Act also codifies a new process for assessment determining presumption of exposure and connection for several chronic conditions when there is evidence of military environmental exposure. The legislation also removes the need for some veterans and survivors to prove their service connection if they were diagnosed with specific conditions. Toxins are not a new concern  for veterans, or veterans activists. According to the Washington Post, this has been an ongoing battle for years to expand veteran healthcare coverage which would remove the burden of the requirement. The legislation received bipartisan support and was set to pass after an 84-14 vote by the Senate in June. After revisions were made, the bill was sent back to Senate, where in its second vote, 25 Republicans reversed their vote, causing it to fall short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, which sparked backlash from veterans rights activists and politicians alike.

“My colleagues can make up all sorts of excuses as to why they decided to change their vote for this bill, but the bottom line is, veterans will suffer and die as a result on behalf of these excuses, and that’s why we’ve got to pass this bill,” said Democratic Senator Jon Tester. 

Activists such as Jon Stewart also spoke out, criticizing politicians such as Ted Cruz for reversing their vote on a bipartisan bill they all previously agreed to, where Cruz cited that Democrats were using this bill to participate in massive spending.

“This is no trick,” Stewart said, “It’s always been mandatory spending so that the government can’t just cut off their funding at any point. No trick. No gimmick. It’s been there the whole time.”

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Tammy Lowrey, a Lubbock veteran, who works with the Women’s Veterans of America, who served in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008, hopes that the bill will be able to be more mindful of dangerous toxins veterans interact with and the complications that stem from them. Lowrey states that often, people lack an understanding of the struggles that veterans face as a result of war and the toxins they ultimately risk being exposed to. According to her, this lack of information can ultimately be harmful.

“If they antagonize the veteran by saying “I don’t believe you, you don’t have anything wrong with you,” [because all injuries are not physical], it can be harmful to the vet. Because it can put more stress on a veteran trying to argue back and trying to explain . In regular society, people think that we’re supposed to have missing limbs or scars that are visible, but not all scars are visible. So like your background knowledge will be harmful to citizens,” Lowrey said.

For instance, someone who has no understanding of what burn pits are could wonder why it is that a medical diagnosis years later of cancer (or any other deadly condition) could be linked to time serving. One article even refers to burn pits as a “silent killer,” that they believe has been ignored for years. Reporter Meghna Chakrabarti interviewed Robyn Thomson, the widow to Lieutenant Colonel Todd Thomson who lost her husband to colon cancer she believes was caused by burn pits. While stationed in Baghdad, he would describe to her how filthy the conditions of burn pits were, even sending her pictures of notes he wrote in the dust from the burn pits that he would eventually sweep. According to Todd, black smoke was coming out of burn pits 24/7 when he served. In 2012, he became sick and eventually was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer at the age of 39. They went to an oncologist at John Hopkins University, where they discovered it was due to exposure.

“ Many soldiers have reported severe health problems after exposure to the burn pits on their bases. Respiratory distress, blood disorders, autoimmune diseases all the way to rare forms of cancer, like Todd. And for years, most of these veterans have fought unsuccessfully to receive health care coverage for medical expenses, due to the burn pit exposure,” Chakrabarti said.

Veterans  Rights Activism and Where the PACT Act is going now

According to Lowrey, veterans rights activism [such as what we’ve seen from figures like Jon Stewart], is something she finds to be crucial.

“I think it’s really important you know, and hopefully with our group we’ll keep showing up to Congress and our senators, and try to make sure they understand what we’re fighting for,” Lowrey said.

While veterans rights activism has helped the PACT act get passed, there is still concern over how it’s going to be executed. According to the Military Times, for Vietnam war veterans who are currently dealing with high blood pressure, it could take until 2026 for them to receive their benefits. For veterans who left in the summer of 2017 onward, they will have their eligibility under the act extended. Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange’s presumptive status go into effect immediately, however. Veterans will also receive 10 years medical coverage through Veterans Affairs [VA], an increase from the original five years. To learn more about the PACT act and how benefits will be given out, or to file a claim, click the link below: