Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Tester touts expanded toxic-exposed veteran benefits in Bozeman

by Laurenz Busch

Sporting a work jacket, cargo pants and his renowned flattop, Sen. Jon Tester exited a silver SUV outside the Travis W. Atkins Veteran Affairs Clinic in Bozeman on Friday and made his way upstairs to the small conference room.

Montana’s senior senator made the rounds there, shaking hands with government employees and speaking with veterans and surviving spouses before touting recent legislation that expanded support for toxic-exposed veterans while in town on the campaign trail.

“The fact is generation after generation of Americans have stepped up and they served this country, they’ve gone to war backed by promises that if they come home changed by their service, this country would have their backs,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, for veterans that have been exposed to toxins, that simply has never been the case until August of 2022 when my PACT Act was signed into law.”

The Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics — or PACT — Act expanded eligibility by adding 23 toxic exposure and burn pit-related conditions for post-9/11 veterans.

Benefit eligibility has since expanded to include those who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa and may have been exposed to the highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange, according to a news release.

The VA clinic in Bozeman will soon open a lab for processing bloodwork to detect possible toxic exposure.

Over 8% of the adult population in Montana are veterans, according to U.S. Census data. More than 3,300 Montanans have received toxic-exposure-related benefits due to the PACT Act including surviving spouses, a news release said.

Nationally, close to 700,000 people are receiving benefits through the PACT Act.

Flanking Tester at the event were three veterans and a surviving spouse who had been impacted by toxic exposure or received benefits under the Pact Act.

Ryan Gummer, a former marine exposed to burn pits had tumors and was diagnosed with sinusitis for which he gained eligibility under the PACT Act. Although he says the VA has had its flaws, it’s helped his family nonetheless — more so now with the new legislation.

“No one expected to be in southern Afghanistan and then 10 years later, sitting on an emergency room table having something cut out of you because of what happened. That’s just reality, though,” Gummer said.

Acknowledging the get-tough mentality of the military — something he understands — Gummer urged his fellow veterans to seek help and get tested, just to make sure that toxic exposure-related issues don’t creep up unnoticed.

“Everyone needs to go in and get checked, needs to go in and get the help,” he said. “We have veterans… that tell us you know, just be tough and as a Marine, I get that, but you need to find a mission in life and to do that you got to be healthy — the VA can provide that for you right now.”

Alongside Gummer was Robert Hunter, who was diagnosed with monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance from Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War; Nicole Kardoes, the surviving spouse of 23-year Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Michael Kardoes, who died suddenly after a diagnosis of lymphoma while working as the Livingston city manager; and Joe Schumacher who served as a tank gunner in the U.S. Army for more than a decade.

Tester said that it’s important for veterans, including those who were denied in the past to check with their VA for preventative care and to reassess eligibility.

“We need to let veterans know throughout Montana… that the PACT Act is a game changer and the only way that veterans can be eligible is if they sign up,” Tester said.