Burn pit, Iraq. Credit: Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

I am happy to report some good news for the over 100,000 veterans living in Orange County. Despite some last-minute shenanigans, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act finally heads over to President Biden’s desk for his signature. Because this is the most comprehensive toxic-exposure legislation passed in our nation’s history, there is something in the bill for nearly every recent generation who served our country.

First, the PACT Act expands who can receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which generally provides care that is “higher in quality than what is offered elsewhere in communities across the nation.” If you are a post-9/11 veteran that served in combat, you were probably eligible for VA health care for five years after your discharge (for example, I returned from my deployment to Iraq with the California Air National Guard in 2018, so I would be eligible until 2023). The PACT Act, however, doubles that window from five to ten years, and provides a one-year open-enrollment period for those who had not previously signed up during their respective windows to do so. So come join the over 24,000 Orange County veterans who received treatment at a VA health care facility.

Iraq, 2018.

Second, the bill acknowledges many toxic-exposed veterans long forgotten or ignored. Generally, to receive VA Disability Compensation, a veteran must prove that she has a particular condition and that there is a nexus between that condition and an in-service event. If our country drafted you for the Vietnam War, where you fought amid toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, promising to take care of you only if you could prove you were exposed to Agent Orange in a specific jungle on a particular Tuesday in 1960 hardly seems fair. Therefore, while VA has for decades presumed certain deployments to Vietnam exposed veterans to Agent Orange, the PACT Act now includes deployments to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and other locations. The bill also requires that VA prepare to award compensation to Agent Orange veterans with hypertension—including those who fought in the Korean War. Even the small group of Atomic Veterans who cleaned up Enewetak Atoll or responded to the nuclear incidents in Palomares and Thule finally get the relief and recognition they have earned.

As for those who most recently served in the Persian Gulf or after 9/11: the PACT Act refuses to leave you behind as our nation did with previous generations. Who would believe we housed service members next to open-air burn pits incinerating trash, feces, and medical waste? Well, this bill not only requires VA to believe you, but also requires VA to take care of you. The PACT Act can give you disability compensation and free health care for dozens of conditions, ranging from rare cancers to respiratory illnesses. If you got turned away from VA before, it’s time to go back.

For the surviving spouses, children, and parents who lost their loved ones to these toxic wounds of war, this bill comes as small consolation. Our nation cannot make you whole, but this bill tries to begin to do right: you may be eligible for compensation if your veteran died of a condition now covered under the PACT Act, and you may even be eligible for retroactive compensation if that condition is associated with Agent Orange exposure. Furthermore, while the bill carefully phases in effective dates for many newly covered conditions, this bill requires VA to process survivor claims immediately.

None of this, of course, matters when veterans or survivors struggle to navigate the VA claims process. By law, nobody but VA-accredited representatives may prepare or file claims on your behalf, and VA maintains a list of accredited representatives.  Many non-accredited for-profit companies, however, have sought to circumvent these rules by hiding predatory fee agreements behind “consultation services,” and there is no doubt that this historic expansion of veteran health care and benefits will reinvigorate their efforts. Remember: you do not have to file a claim by yourself—you can get VA-accredited help, for free. Accredited representatives from Veteran Service Organizations like The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars offer free help and do not require membership for their services.

After all, the true cost of war isn’t in just sending men and women into harm’s way—it’s taking care of them when they return. And while the PACT Act represents an attempt by Congress to do just that, let us not forget that California and Orange County incurred debts as well. Veterans disproportionately experience homelessness in our parks and our streets and die by suicide at higher rates. County Veterans Service Offices are often undermanned and underpaid, despite the hard work they put in to ensure veterans and survivors get what they deserve. Budgets reflect priorities, and state representatives, county supervisors, and city councilmembers must ensure that the funding for veteran services match campaign rhetoric and social media posts. When it comes to taking care of our veterans, passage of the PACT Act is a timely reminder for politicians that they merely hold funding in escrow, as part of a promise too often broken: fight for us, and we will fight for you.

James Cho (@otherjamescho) lives in Fullerton. He works for the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and is an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. These opinions, however, are his alone and should not be attributed to his employer or the United States Air Force.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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