U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has called on his Senate colleagues to pass major bipartisan legislation that would expand health care and benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans across the country who were exposed to toxins while serving in the military.
The legislation he is referring to is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act. This bill is named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard and died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service.
The PACT Act would address illnesses from exposure to toxic burn pits and expand presumptions related to Agent Orange exposure. Included in the bill is the Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act which would extend provisions to veterans who served in wars in the Gulf and who have experienced unexplained chronic symptoms known as the “Gulf War Illness”, which can include symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, memory loss, insomnia, and respiratory disorders. Exposure to pesticides and other toxins have been linked to these symptoms.
Bayonne veterans not forgotten
The press event on June 13 at the Flournoy Gethers VFW Post 7470 on West 19th Street in Bayonne started with a few words from Mayor James Davis, who highlighted that the U.S. should take care of their veterans without second thought.
“There is no other group in the United States that we all need to stand behind than our veterans,” Davis said. “Anybody who is willing to guard a post of freedom, at the end of their tour of duty, as a grateful nation we owe it to every single veteran to take care of them. Because they took care of our freedom. That’s what we’re here to do today, take care of our veterans.”
After Davis, Commander Barry Jones of Flournoy Gethers VFW Post 7470, where the event was being held, highlighted there are many veterans in Bayonne that can not be forgotten.
“When soldiers come home and become veterans, they need more than just a thank you,” Jones said. “They need to have access to housing, healthcare, and job opportunities that will make their lives more fuller. One of the things the PACT Act is doing is trying to help us with that.”
Menendez rallies behind PACT Act
After Jones, Menendez pitched his support for the PACT Act. He said he chose Bayonne to hold the press conference due to the large number of veterans and veteran organizations in the city.
“This will make an enormous difference in the lives of those who have served in uniform and defended our freedoms and our way of life,” Menendez said. “For far too long, when our sons and daughters return from overseas, they’ve had to face a bureaucratic maze just to get treatment for illnesses they contracted while serving.”
The PACT Act would add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’s (VA) list of service presumptions, including hypertension.
“In terms of dealing with garbage and the other elements that had to be exposed, they burned it,” Menendez said “They burned it indiscriminately… And the toxic fumes that emanated from that were inhaled by our service people. For many of them, it created a life-changing set of circumstances. This finally recognizes that and seeks to treat them.
The bill would also strengthen federal research on toxic exposure and improve the VA’s resources and training for toxic-exposed veterans. According to Menendez, it would also ensure veterans have adequate resources by investing in VA claims processing and health care facilities and boost the department’s workforce.
Provisions included for ‘Gulf War Illness’
The provisions will also extend to veterans who served in wars in the Gulf and who have experienced unexplained chronic symptoms known as the “Gulf War Illness.”
“For many who served in the Middle East during the Gulf War, they came back with multiple medically unexplained chronic symptoms, from fatigue and head aches to joint pain, indigestion, dizziness, respiratory, and memory problems,” Menendez said. “When veterans submitted claims to get treatment for these symptoms, collectively known as Gulf War Ilness, the VA had them fill out a separate questionnaire for each symptom. Adjudicators at the VA would then order examinations for each symptom without considering the factors that connected one illness to multiple symptoms. As a result, claims for Gulf War illness were more likely to take longer and were denied at greater rates than other service-related disabilities.”
Afghan and Iraq war veterans both also experienced similar issues, but only Iraq war veterans were initially deemed eligible to be treated for Gulf War Illness by the VA. This bill would make veterans who served in Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Jordan eligible for benefits.
“This kind bureaucratic nightmare is exactly why I introduced the Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act, which is now included in the PACT Act,” Menendez said. “In addition to permanently expanding the period of eligibility for compensation based on Gulf War Illness, my provision removes the manifestation period requirement related to Gulf War Illness. It requires the VA to create a disability benefits questionnaire specific to Gulf War Illness and veterans who are screened for Gulf War Illnesses.”
Other aspects of the bill
The bill would remove the sunset date of Dec. 31, which has been extended five times previously, to receive disability compensation benefits for Gulf War Illness. This aims to ensure veterans whose symptoms do not manifest until later in life receive benefits.
Current law requires a veteran to have a disability associated with Gulf War illness and a rating of at least 10 percent to be eligible for disability compensation. The bill would lower the eligibility threshold to zero percent, allowing more veterans to receive disability compensation and other benefits.
VA medical staff is currently not required to complete training before conducting Gulf War illness examinations, leading to a substantial number of veterans being denied benefits. The bill would require the VA to ensure department personnel are appropriately trained in dealing with Gulf War Illness claims and to report to Congress annually on actions taken.
The VA currently assigns separate disability-based questionnaires (DBQs) for each Gulf War illness symptom a veteran reports and then orders examinations for each symptom without considering that one illness is connected to multiple symptoms, often leading to veterans’ claims being denied. The legislation would require the VA to develop a single DBQ for Gulf War Illness, which would facilitate more timely and accurate consideration of disability compensation for veterans suffering from the illness.
“Honoring our veterans goes beyond recognizing them for their service,” Menendez said. “It is about living up to our commitment to serve those who so selflessly served us. That means taking care of their healthcare, taking care of their disabilities, taking care of their loved ones when they make the ultimate sacrifice. When we dedicated ourselves to securing health care and benefits to those who have been subjected and exposed to toxic substances from Agent Orange to burn pits, we are living up to this responsibility.”
Veterans speak out
Michael Embrich, a life-long Bayonne resident who has served in the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan after joining post 9/11, said that he returned home to a government “ill-equipped” to fit the needs of returning service members.
“It started me on the journey that led me where I am today,” Embrich said. “In the 21 years since 9/11, we have accomplished many goals… but there is still more work to do be done. From the veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to Agent Orange, to the Gulf War veterans poised by Sarin gas exposure that left them weak, crippled, not the men and women they were when they left. For the post 9/11 veterans, poisoned from toxic exposure, things that they burned, some of it pretty unmentionable for a press conference, that they breathed in, got sick, came home, and were ignored. As we know, these illnesses take many years if not decades to become apparent. But with the PACT Act, our veterans will no longer be denied care because they don’t check a box at the VA.”
Embrich said it was not partisan but an American issue, and called for the passage of the PACT Act. Additionally, Sergeant First Class Donza Taylor Sr., who enlisted in 1998 and served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War, also called for the bill’s passage.
“I stand here today to represent all veterans who have demonstrated the selfless service and commitment to this great country who have answered the nations call to duty,” Donza said, noting he was a member of Post 7470. “Today is about letting our voices be heard alongside Senator Menendez in support of the PACT Act which will expand veteran eligibility for benefits… This PACT Act must be passed. We simply cannot have veterans paying out of pocket for medical bills. Or worst case scenario, be denied a claim and fall through the cracks because of untrained staff.”
Two other veterans spoke before Menendez fielded unrelated questions from members of the press.
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