Missoulian: Veterans get toxic exposure screenings at Missoula VA clinic

by David Erickson

Dr. Erik Vilen, the chief of primary care for the Montana Veterans Affairs health care system, knows firsthand the importance of screening veterans for exposure to toxic substances. He served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as an enlisted U.S. Army engineer and was the field sanitation non-commissioned officer. That means he was around the now infamous open “burn pits,” where military waste was incinerated in the desert and where people got exposed to toxins that have caused serious health issues.

“So I was in charge of burning the stuff,” Vilen said.

In response to the untold numbers of service members and civilians exposed to the fumes from these open pits, the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins (PACT) Act was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and passed by Congress in the summer of 2022. President Joe Biden signed it into law on Aug. 8. It expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange (widely used in Vietnam) and other toxic substances.

On Friday, the David J. Thatcher VA Clinic in Missoula celebrated its one-year anniversary by debuting 10 different programs and service tables. Among the stations was a coordinator ready to conduct toxic exposure screenings.

“We are hoping to continue outreach on the new PACT Act, which is the most significant expansion of veteran benefits and care in more than three decades, empowering the VA to help millions of toxic-exposed veterans and their survivors,” explained Katie Beall, a public affairs officer for the Montana VA. “Simply, more veterans are now eligible for VA care and benefits and we hope (Friday’s) event can help connect them to every service they have earned.”

Vilen said the Montana VA has screened about 9,600 veterans of the total 38,000 veterans in the state that are enrolled in primary care.

“So, for only being several months into this, we have made a concerted effort starting about the first of October to try to screen every veteran,” he said. “I can say that approximately 48% of our veterans that come in do have a positive toxic exposure screen. Now, keep in mind that includes everything from asbestosis to Agent Orange to airborne hazards and burn pit registry.”

If they have a positive screening, a follow-up is conducted to see if they need additional evaluation or medical treatments or benefits.

Jay Rector served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969 to 1972 and spent nine months on supply chain duty in Vietnam. He’s unsure of whether he was exposed to Agent Orange, but he got a screening on Friday. He said the new clinic in Missoula has been a huge benefit to older veterans like himself.

“Honestly, it’s kind of a pain in the butt to drive to Fort Harrison (a VA Medical Center in Helena) in the winter,” he said. “I do think the benefit of having a facility on the western slope of Montana is going to be beneficial to a lot of veterans.”

Susan Calentine is the Women’s Veteran Program Manager for the Montana VA. She said the number of female veterans increases every year in the state.

“We have about 9,000 women veterans, about 4,200 enrolled in the system and about 3,700 that actively seek our services,” she said. “And those numbers increase 2%-3% every year.”

She said women could only access gynecological services through the Montana VA in Billings or Helena in years past, but recently those services were expanded to Bozeman. Now, with the assistance of a traveling gynecology nurse practitioner, they’ll be providing those services in Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell and Butte.

“The number of enrollees in the VA for men are going down,” Calentine explained. “They’re still increasing for women. The number of women going into the military has still increased every year. That has been forecast for the last 10 years. There’s 865,000 women veterans within our VA overall in the U.S. and that number continues to rise every year.”

Calentine, a veteran herself, said the new clinic in Missoula is a “whole new ballgame.”

“This is beautiful,” she said. “Our veterans deserve to walk into a top-notch facility, and they deserve to not only have the best care but also to be able to have it in a great environment.”

Veterans get toxic exposure screenings at Missoula VA clinic (missoulian.com)