The callous attitude of Republican senators in dealing with the PACT Act should not come as a surprise because Washington officialdom has a long history of indifference to the health needs of America’s war fighters. The act provides health care and benefits to veterans who suffered cancer and other ailments from exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and extends benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The act received final congressional approval last week after GOP senators were shamed into submission by veterans’ groups and comedian Jon Stewart.
The Senate initially approved the act in June with only 14 dissenting Republican senators. Just a month later, 25 additional Republicans tried to deep-six the bill on a procedural vote, out of an apparent fit of pique over a completely unrelated issue. It seems they thought the best way to vent their rage against Democrats was to punish sick veterans. The Republicans came to their senses last week and approved the act with just 11 of them voting no.
Having served in Vietnam in 1968-1969, I was not surprised by this indifferent attitude toward the care of our veteran population. Following the unfortunate conclusion of the Vietnam War, the Veterans Administration (VA) and Congress routinely denied care and benefits to Vietnam veterans for a wide range of service-related health problems, including illnesses related to Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.
Vets were left to fend for themselves, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths, including numerous suicides. It took many years to convince official Washington that veterans were suffering from conditions related to their Vietnam service and that the country was honor bound to respond.
And it wasn’t a matter in which the cause-and-effect relationship was that hard to see. After coming home, I worked for an Idaho senator in Washington. There was great concern at the time about how dioxin contamination of the Chesapeake Bay presented a serious human health hazard. But when veterans told the VA that Agent Orange was chock-full of dioxin, it did not seem to be a problem. Congress did not care, either.
Much the same could be said about the toxic burn pits that came into fashion during the First Gulf War. Much like the 9-11 responders a decade later, veterans complained about a myriad of health problems they attributed to breathing toxic fumes from the burn pits. Of course, the VA answer was to deny benefits unless the sick vets could come forth with proof positive. The deck is stacked when veterans bear the burden of proof.
With regard to the burn pits, the VA was aware of concerns about the adverse health effects of the toxic fumes by at least 2009, when a Vanderbilt University lung specialist disclosed the link at a large gathering of doctors. Representatives of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs didn’t want to hear about it and totally ignored his work. It was complete denial, much like the government’s earlier response to Agent Orange.
The Pact Act finally rights this horrendous wrong to our veterans, who always assumed the country would have their backs when service-connected medical conditions arose. The act makes a presumption that certain illnesses are covered if the veteran was exposed to a burn pit. The veteran no longer has an almost impossible burden of proving his or her condition was caused by the toxic smoke. The act specifies a number of covered cancers, including pancreatic cancer. This is critically important because there is no scientific way to prove the source of this wretched type of cancer.
I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2017 and have apparently been cured, after medical billings of about three-quarters of a million dollars. Thanks to Medicare and private insurance, my out-of-pocket cost was about $12,000. I did not file a claim with the VA because I didn’t need the help and VA has not covered pancreatic cancer for Agent Orange exposure. If a burn pit victim had been diagnosed with this variety of cancer before the act, he or she would have been flat out of luck — unable to prove the cause and unable to pay the huge treatment costs without government help.
I’ve been curious about what might have caused my cancer and had somewhat of a revelation in looking at a map of the area of Vietnam where I served. I made several hundred hours of low-level flights over heavily defoliated jungle in War Zone C in the northern part of Tay Ninh Province in search of artillery targets. Water drainage from about 1,000 square kilometers of that jungle flowed practically past my doorstep. We showered in those putrid waters and consumed contaminated food and beverages. There could be some link. Many other Vietnam veterans had connections of that sort to Agent Orange that did not necessarily register as a potential source of a later illness.
The PACT Act will eliminate many of the problems that have prevented veterans from getting the care they need and deserve. Going forward, we need an attitude change among those in Congress who refused to support it. Voters should not put up with legislators who praise the service of veterans but vote against their health care needs.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who wrote of his service in “Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.” He served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.