Billings Gazette: Jon Tester: Paying the cost of war at last for veterans with the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act

by Jon Tester

Generation after generation, Americans have gone to war, backed by the promise that their country would take care of them when they came home.

Yet for years, our government failed those in uniform who returned home only to face a different kind of battle: the battle of cobbling together their earned care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson was one of those veterans.

Heath’s story is, unfortunately, far too familiar among our military men and women. Like many Americans, he answered the call of duty and deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard as a healthy and active soldier. There, he was exposed to potent toxins from burn pits. He died in 2020 from illnesses directly related to his toxic exposure, including a rare autoimmune disease and stage 4 lung cancer.

Heath left behind a nine-year-old daughter, a wife, and an extended family that have made it their life’s work to make this country provide for other veterans what it could not give Heath—the support he needed to survive.

VA estimates more than 3.5 million Post-9/11 veterans may have been exposed to toxic substances during their time in uniform. Of that population, three-fourths were exposed to burn pits while deployed overseas—massive areas used to dispose of plastics, rubber, jet fuel, and other chemicals.

In Montana alone, more than 66,000 veterans may have been exposed to toxic substances during their service — from Agent Orange to burn pits. That’s more than two-thirds of all the veterans living in our state.

As a direct result of their exposure, many veterans like Heath developed rare, gruesome, deadly cancers, as well as respiratory conditions, and other debilitating illnesses. Some of them, developed years after their service in the military.

For decades, these veterans were left without the care and benefits they earned.

Until now.

As Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I’ve heard repeatedly from Montana veterans, Veterans Service Organizations, advocates, and survivors about the painful effects of toxic exposures on our fighting men and women. And together, we set out to right this wrong.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 is the result of that effort.

A historic bill named after Heath that delivers toxic-exposed veterans their long-overdue health care and disability benefits — is now the law of the land. The Senate passed it by a wide bipartisan margin of 86-11 on Aug. 2, and President Biden signed it into law in short order.

The PACT Act goes far beyond any toxic exposure effort that has preceded it. For the first time in history, this comprehensive law expands VA health care eligibility to more than 3.5 million Post-9/11 combat veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also removes the burden of proof for 23 presumptive conditions caused by toxic exposures, from cancers to lung disease, and codifies a framework to establish future presumptions of service connection.

This law finally sends hundreds of thousands more across the country to VA for care they had previously been denied. And it gives VA the tools it needs to bolster its workforce, establish more health care facilities, and improve claims processing.

It’s no secret that our country is very capable of recognizing the physical, obvious wounds of war — a lost limb, a chemical burn. And we are getting better at recognizing the mental wounds of war, though we have a ways to go. But we have ignored the wounds of war from toxic exposure for far too long.

I’m proud we’re finally righting this wrong and living up to the promises we’ve made to thousands of Montana veterans and their families with the PACT Act.

Getting this law across the finish line certainly wasn’t easy — but we got the job done. And that’s exactly what Montanans sent me to Washington to do.

Jon Tester: Paying the cost of war at last for veterans with the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act | Columnists |