SAN ANGELO, Texas — It’s been just over six weeks since the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was passed into law by the Senate.
The historic, bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), aims to not only rectify injustices inflicted upon veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, but to potentially improve the lives of their families for generations to come.
The law’s passage is a big, big deal, and one that DAV Chapter 237 Commander Luis Martinez wants all vets to know about, especially those who may be hesitant to take advantage of it.
“The hardest thing is coming through that front door. That’s the hardest step,” Martinez said. “The biggest one we get from a lot of veterans is, ‘Well there’s other veterans out there that have it worse than me.’ True. But you joined the service. This is your benefit. Know your rights. It’s not that you’re complaining or taking benefits from someone else; the VA has funds allotted for you. Sometimes a lot of veterans have to take that pride and swallow it, but at the same time too, when you do your claim, you’re not doing it for you, you’re doing it for your family. Because these benefits could potentially turn into survivor benefits for your spouse. These benefits could potentially turn into educational benefits for your children.”
The legislation’s unusually long reach spans from post-9/11 operations, to the Gulf War burn pits, to Vietnam vets and their families.
“The thing is, with the younger veterans, what they need to realize is the burn pit is no joke. This seriously could be life or death later on down the line,” Martinez said. “That’s why we’re trying to learn our lessons from what the government did to the Vietnam veterans, you know, because we’re still having Vietnam veterans with Agent Orange issues. And that’s why they are included in this PACT Act. Because Agent Orange is a dirty, dirty chemical. It’s not like you just wash it off. And it affects not just you, but some children that were born from Vietnam veterans have side effects now, like spina bifida. But a lot of veterans don’t know that their dependents can claim that stuff.”
Although the paperwork can seem excessive, Martinez said the law is also streamlined to make it easier for veterans who have been previously diagnosed — yet denied — to get the attention they deserve.
“The forms are tedious and they’re time-consuming because they are government forms, but they’re needed. When you come in, we already know what to put on there, because the VA has stated if you’ve been denied, instead of having to submit new evidence, as long as you were diagnosed with the issues, like chronic sinusitis or rhinitis, bronchitis, chronic cough, sleep issues, anything like that, come on in, because the VA has set guidelines, like ‘OK, we want you to put this on the appeal’ and once it’s processed we’ll start getting the claims approved faster.”
Martinez said all who may be affected are welcome, even if it’s just for questions.
“It’s not just veterans. If you are a veteran or the spouse of a veteran, a surviving spouse of a veteran who passed away, this affects them as well. So if you have questions about whether or not you are denied a claim, come back in now. Because now most of the stuff that you were probably denied was presumptive now. If you were denied, come in. If you have questions and you never filed for it, come in. If you had your survivor benefits denied for whatever reason that you think could have been attributed to this, come in.”
Although claims won’t start being processed until Jan. 1 of next year, the VA recommends veterans act now.
“If you’re getting your claims in now it’s gonna save you a lot of time,” Martinez said. “Because right now, there’s over 500,000 claims in the pipeline waiting to process. And that’s not including repeals. So the faster they get in to start their benefits, the faster it’s gonna be for them in the long run. All they gotta do is they come in, we set them up, we send it off, and usually within a couple weeks, maybe a month, they’ll start getting phone calls for appointments.”
And according to Martinez, those who have had bad VA experiences in the past will be in good hands in San Angelo.
“A lot of veterans that I get now, they hear horror stories from the VA, and they don’t want to get burned. But I’m gonna tell you right now, this is not your grandfather’s VA. The programs they have now and the staff are phenomenal. Especially the CBOC [Community Based Outpatient Clinic] we have here in San Angelo. By far the best VA clinic I’ve ever been to. The physicians, the nurses, the staff, everyone has been phenomenal at getting the help that you need. And if they can’t do it here they will refer you out to the community, as per the Mission Act."
"I get my care here, and I want a lot of veterans to come in here, because you can’t get it taken care of if they don’t know, right? So don’t feed into the whole, you know, ‘Well, I went to a VA in some other part of the country and they treated me horribly.’ That’s there. This is here. Come here and see what they got.”