WASHINGTON — The $277 billion "Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics" aka the PACT Act was signed into law Wednesday by President Joseph Biden, helping an estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in the Middle East dating back to Operation Desert Storm.
It is being called the largest expansion of veterans' health care and benefits in the last three decades.
Vets, such as former Army Specialist and Iraq War vet Josh Nicholson of Virginia Beach, will benefit from the new law.
"I struggle every day. I do have some issues related to burn pit exposure with my breathing and my nasal cavity and stuff," he said.
Now, the Veterans Affairs Department will be compelled to treat 23 types of cancers and respiratory illnesses that, going forward, will be presumed to have been caused by a veteran's military service.
"This isn't something we're giving to veterans just because they're veterans. This is something they were exposed to and they deserve to be cared for," said Kaitlynne Hetrick, a Navy veteran and government affairs associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Hampton Roads lawmakers said passing the bill was absolutely the right thing to do.
"We have an obligation when we send people overseas, when they come back... if they come back with diseases or injuries related to their service, of course we ought to pay for those. And this is the least we can do," said Rep. Bobby Scott (D, VA-03).
"This bill, it literally is going to save lives, and I'm incredibly proud," said Rep. Elaine Luria (D, VA-02), who serves as vice chair of the House Armed Service Committee.
In a joint statement, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said: "Our nation's veterans have made immense sacrifices in defense of our freedom, and Congress has a responsibility to ensure we're providing them with the benefits they deserve."
President Biden said: "This law is long overdue, but we finally got it done together."
When asked if this was a happy day, Nicholson replied, "Absolutely. For me and millions of other veterans out there."