Local vets hail PACT Act

  • The Edward P. Boland Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, home to the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Brian Brooks, the veterans’ service officer at the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District in Greenfield, pictured in May 2021. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2022 4:29:33 PM
Modified: 8/19/2022 4:26:07 PM

GREENFIELD — Officials with the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District hope the recent passage of the bill known as the PACT Act will encourage retired veterans to file claims if they were exposed to burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan or Agent Orange in Vietnam or other Southeast Asian locales.

“We’re here to help with these claims,” said Deputy Director Christopher Demars, who added that a supplemental claim can be completed for any veteran previously denied benefits. “There’s a lot of veterans that have ... hypertension that were denied. I’d like them to come back in.”

A burn pit is an area of a U.S. military base in which debris is disposed of via burning. Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical that was used during the Vietnam War, can cause a variety of physical ailments from ischemic heart disease to Parkinson’s disease.

On Aug. 10, President Joe Biden signed into law the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, which expands health care access and funding for veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service. According to information from the veterans’ services district, the law expands and extends eligibility for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care for veterans with toxic exposures and veterans of the Vietnam War, Gulf War and post-9/11 eras. It also adds more than 20 new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures, adds more presumptive-exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation, and requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to all veterans enrolled in its health care system.

“And the thing is,” Demars said, “some of these are going to take time for them to actually kick in and start receiving benefits.”

Demars, who served in the Army National Guard from 1988 until he was medically retired in 2015, said veterans can go to a VA hospital or their own physician, “anyone that can do a diagnosis.” He said a licensed physician not within the VA system can fill out paperwork to be used as evidence of a diagnosis for the VA’s purposes.

The PACT Act also extends from five years to 10 years the eligibility period for VA health care for combat veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, and for toxin-exposed veterans.

Demars said he has seen how Agent Orange has affected Vietnam War veterans and he is relieved that enough lessons have been learned to ensure veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq won’t have their suffering prolonged.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” Demars said, adding that it usually “takes years and years and years and years of studies.”

Brian Brooks, the veterans’ service officer at the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District and a U.S. Marine from 2004 to 2008, recalled being stationed in a guard tower next to a burn pit in Ramadi, Iraq, during his first tour in that country.

“And the smoke would just come right on in,” he recounted. “Who knows what the heck you’re even breathing in there? You look and then you see all kinds of crap and trash in there. It could be anything — plastics, rubbers, metals, computer equipment, wires. It was pretty bad.”

Demars said he and his fellow soldiers used burn pits to dispose of everything from wrappers used to package meals to ammunition boxes.

“We also burned kilos and kilos of heroin that we would get … and that was in big plastic bags,” he said. “Sometimes you hear a bang or a pop, which means somebody threw (away) an ordnance or a grenade of something.”

Demars said that by his second tour in Afghanistan, locals had been hired to take away garbage.

As for the smell, Brooks said “there’s nothing quite like it.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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