ABC Fox Montana: Recipients of PACT Act benefits encourage toxic-exposed veterans to apply

by Alex McCollum

Veterans gathered at the Travis W. Atkins Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic on Friday to encourage more veterans to apply for PACT Act benefits. 

The PACT Act stands for Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics. Senator Jon Tester spoke at the event about his work championing the act to get it passed in August 2022 and how veterans are already seeing the benefits. 

From those exposed to agent orange in Vietnam to burn pits in the Middle East, veterans have been grappling with the long-term health effects of serving in times of war. They fight overseas then return home and later receive a diagnosis for a life-threatening illness that the VA will not help them fight. It is an ongoing battle. 

“You fight everything you can, and you bring each other home and then feeling helpless and being turned down and then ultimately having to bury him and console his wife,” said retired Marine Corps. Corporal Ryan Gummer, of his friend Chip Edward Dix. Dix died because of exposure to toxic burn pits used to destroy waste. 

Since returning from the Middle East, Gummer has dealt with a variety of health issues he also attributes partially to the burn pits and partially to an explosion he experienced. He has continuoussinus issues and diminished lung capacity, among other issues. And it was a fight with the VA to even get help. 

“A lot of my stuff was just denied because there was no knowledge, there was no acceptance of a lot of things. I fought with the VA, unfortunately, from 2012 into 15,” Gummer said. 

While in Vietnam, veteran Robert Hunter was exposed to Agent Orange. 

He received a diagnosis in 2016 called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance, MGUS for short. This condition can lead to other Agent Orange-related diseases like cancer and kidney disease. It must be monitored closely for the rest of his life. 

Again, the VA did not recognize the disease as being caused by his time in the service. 

“The VA claims processors offered uninformed excuses like they did not believe I served in Vietnam, or that I was exposed to Agent Orange, that MGUS was actually a disease or that this was related to my exposure.” 

Because of the PACT Act, Hunter and Gummer have finally been able to receive recognition for their service-related illnesses and conditions. They are able to get medical coverage for treatments and get connected with the proper specialists through the VA. 

Gummer has now had several nodule tumors surgically removed from his body, and his breathing issues like sinusitis and sleep apnea are now covered. Hunter has been able to get his MGUS checkup appointments covered, as well as travel costs. 

PACT Act benefits are also available for survivors of those who died from toxic-related diseases. Nicole Kardoes’ husband died from several types of cancer in 2022. At the time of his passing, their son offered to drop out of school to get a job and help support their family. 

“When Mike died, he’s like, ‘Mom, I will help you and I will take care of you.’ But because of the PACT Act, my college kids are still in college, my son did not walk away to get a job,” Kardoes said. 

So far, 1.3 million veterans or survivors have applied for benefits, including 6,000 Montanans. So far, 962,000 have received benefits, including 3,300 Montanans. 

Senator Steve Daines did not participate in a vote for the bill on its first round in the Senate and voted in favor during the second round. He has also introduced the Protecting Veteran Community Care Act to provide mental health and substance abuse services for veterans.