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Thousands of Veterans Excluded from PACT Act Benefits Seek Equal Health Care Opportunities

Investigating Veterans’ Health Risks

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At 46, former Army linguist Julie Akey was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer typically found in older individuals. This diagnosis came as a shock, especially since there was no family history of the disease.

Linking Disease to Military Service

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Akey discovered that Fort Ord, California, where she once resided, was a Superfund site due to extensive soil and groundwater contamination. She suspects the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) at Fort Ord contributed to her illness.

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A Widespread Environmental Issue

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Fort Ord’s issue is not isolated. Many U.S. military sites, both active and former, are known for environmental pollution, posing health threats to service members and their families.

Diverse Health Impacts on Veterans

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The range of health issues includes firefighters with testicular cancer, aviation crews with brain and nervous system cancers. Also a higher incidence of breast cancer and ALS among certain military personnel is reported.

The PACT Act’s Role

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The 2022 PACT Act allows millions of veterans affected by environmental exposures abroad to access healthcare and disability compensation. It’s one of the largest expansions in VA benefits history.

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Challenges for Domestic Exposure Cases

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Veterans like Akey, affected by domestic military site exposures, struggle to prove their illnesses are service-connected. This often involves a complicated process with little VA support.

Julie Akey’s Struggle for Recognition

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Despite her research linking TCE to her condition, Akey’s claims have been repeatedly denied. She feels the VA is prolonging the process, a sentiment echoed by other veterans.

The VA’s Two-Tiered System

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The VA has a system where some conditions are automatically linked to service. The PACT Act expanded this for veterans exposed to pollutants in specific overseas regions.

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Fort McClellan’s Contamination Concerns

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Fort McClellan, Alabama, a closed Army post, potentially faced contamination from radioactive compounds and chemicals. A nearby Monsanto plant also raised health concerns due to alleged pollution.

The Atsugi Incinerator and Its Aftermath

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At the Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, families like the Seamans lived near a harmful incinerator. Navy Capt. Jim Seaman later developed lung cancer, which his widow attributes to the incinerator’s emissions.

Connecting Environmental Exposure to Illness

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Linking environmental exposures to specific medical conditions is challenging. Research often contradicts claims of increased health risks at sites like Fort Ord, Atsugi, and Fort McClellan.

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The Government’s Response Over Time

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There’s a history of the government denying links between military service and illnesses. This includes delaying recognition and assistance for conditions like those caused by Agent Orange and burn pits.

The VA’s Authority and Responsibility

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The VA can establish presumptive conditions without external input. Recent expansions include certain conditions for veterans exposed in the Persian Gulf region.

The Importance of VA’s Proactive Approach

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Veterans’ advocates like Shane Liermann emphasize the need for the VA to broaden the list of presumptive conditions. She urges immediate action to improve veterans’ quality of life.

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The VA’s Advice to Veterans

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough encourages veterans to file claims for any service-connected injury or illness despite the challenges in proving such connections. Without a presumptive connection, veterans face a daunting process to receive VA disability, with the department lacking specific data on military exposures.

Akey’s Fight for Justice

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Akey has documented hundreds of cases of illness among Fort Ord residents yet struggles with VA claim denials. She believes her success could pave the way for others.

The PACT Act’s Impact and Future Studies

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The PACT Act has initiated studies into various exposure sites, but results can’t come quickly enough for affected veterans. These efforts are vital for recognizing and addressing health issues linked to military service.

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The Ongoing Battle for Recognition

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Veterans continue to fight for recognition of health issues caused by military environmental exposures. The VA is considering adding more conditions to the PACT Act list, but challenges remain, particularly for those exposed to domestic sites.

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