Final day for veterans sickened by burn pits to file for retroactive PACT Act benefits
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Soldiers on the front lines in war zones faced new battles when they got home-- rare cancers and other illnesses that are now blamed on burn pits.
WCAX News first told you about these pits. We saw them firsthand when we embedded with the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan.
After years of fighting for benefits, there was a win for these sick vets and their families when the president signed the PACT Act.
But the deadline to apply for those benefits is Aug. 9.
Those burn pits are now linked to more than 20 illnesses and cancers. Many Vermont soldiers got sick from them and many died. The legislation provides benefits and lifted the burden of proof from veterans, some of whom had fought for years to get their claims approved.
“It’s hard you know, when you put a plan together. Then that plan goes away,” June Heston said.
Heston lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Mike Heston in 2018 to a rare form of pancreatic cancer after his three deployments to Afghanistan. The cause for his cancer was toxic burn pits. The open-air trash fires burn all day and all night. In them, everything is torched with jet fuel: human waste, medical waste including body parts, metals, tires, everything. Soldiers breathed in the smoke that hung over the bases.
Exactly a year ago, President Joe Biden signed an act into law called the PACT Act. It expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to those burn pits.
Heston says this piece of legislative history was long overdue.
“I do think it was long overdue. I think that there were people working on it long before I joined the team coalition. That really were the catalyst to get this pushed through,” she said.
For several weeks now, the Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs and White River Junction’s Veterans Service Center have been encouraging vets across the state to apply for PACT Act benefits, as Wednesday, Aug. 9, is the deadline for vets to apply for them retroactively.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans submitted 224,554 claims in July and 1.88 million since the law passed.
The Veterans Service Center says close to 1,000 vets have applied here in Vermont so far, and they want that number to go higher.
“There’s a lot of veterans that still don’t know about this legislation or these benefits, so it’s kind of a word of mouth. It feels great to me, obviously. I have been doing this for over twenty years. It’s nice to get the benefits out to the men and women who deserve it,” said Jason Dion of White River Junction’s Veterans Service Center.
WCAX News spoke with Gen. Heston shortly before he died. He told us then the government needed to stand up for the soldiers who serve and the families they leave behind.
“I never asked for this. And it was five years I was away from home. I come back. She’s still there. And she’s the one picking up the pieces for me,” Gen. Mike Heston said. “So we have got to take care of the family. This is not just affecting the soldier. This affects the whole family. I need the army to be there for us.”
“You want to make sure that your family is taken care of. And if for no other reason, get on the registry,” June Heston said.
What the PACT Act does not do is put the fires out. There’s a push in Congress to force the Defense Department to find a different way to get rid of waste. But in the meantime, a WCAX News investigation last winter discovered there are seven active burn pits still in operation.
If veterans miss the Aug. 9 deadline, they can file what’s called an intent to file, but that needs to happen Thu., Aug. 10. However, VA officials say even if veterans miss the deadline to get retroactive benefits, they can still file new claims after this deadline.
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