NonStop Local: Veterans share their experience with toxic exposure and how the PACT Act helps

by Joee Taylor

Beginning March 5th, all veterans who were exposed to toxins and other hazards while serving in the military at home and abroad are now eligible to enroll directly in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care without first applying for VA benefits.

“If you’re willing to send folks off to Africa and the Middle East to fight a way and you don’t want to take care of them when they get back home, you shouldn’t send them in the first place,” said Senator Jon Tester. 

It’s all through the PACT Act, and according to Tester, this expansion llows millions of veterans to now be eligible to enroll directly in VA health care, including all veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Global War on Terror, or any other combat zone after 9/11.

Today, he was in Great Falls and held a press conference to speak with veterans alongside toxic-exposed veterans to inform others on the PACT Act. 

Alongside Tester was Candy Hering and Dean martin, both having served in the military. 

Hering served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2007 and was deployed dozens of times, often being surrounded by burn pits, diseases, and other exposures. 

“Burn pits and oil fields burning, tires burning. And again, a lot of, you know, different diseases and environmental factors that we’re not necessarily used to being in here in America,” said Hering. 

For Hering, she says she was answering the nation’s call in a time of need but she didn’t realize what she was exposing herself to straight out of high school. 

“I wasn’t necessarily thinking about, oh, this could be dangerous. Oh, this isn’t healthy. You know, we were more in a mindset like whatever it takes to get the job done,” said Hering. 

When she came back home, she struggled with respiratory issues and asked herself why she was suffering and others weren’t. 

That is until the PACT Act opened up to her. 

“The pride and joy of my life was serving in the Marine Corps and serving my country. Now I’m going to get taken care of for doing that. It’s a very wholesome feeling,” said Hering. 

While Hering had the opportunity to benefit from the PACT Act, she is now also helping local veterans in Montana file claims. 

“I had one veteran specifically, who years ago was fighting to get benefits for conditions he believed were linked to his Agent Orange exposure and the old laws were not allowing for him to get those benefits. When the PACT Act passed and opened up that location, he had already passed away because of a service-connected condition. But because I had known his name, I was able to contact his surviving spouse and she was finally able to get justice for her husband by getting those benefits he had earned. This work is monumental and the veterans in our community are benefiting,” said Hering. 

Martin served in the Vietnam War and while it’s been 55 years since his boots were on the ground, he’s been around to see many changes in veterans heath care. 

“I had a very good friend of mine, I went to high school with him and served in Vietnam the same time I did. He came back and Agent Orange took him out early,” said Martin, “He had a family, two children, a wife, a new business, and I’m sad to say—he died bankrupt, without the comfort that his family was going to be taken care of.” 

Tester says this law is really delivering long-overdue health care and benefits to toxic exposed veterans and survivors. 

“I also have the comfort that if I die because of a condition that I had from Vietnam, that my wife will be cared for. And that is a very comforting thing to me,” said Martin. 

For more information on the PACT Act and to see if you’re eligible, click here.

Since the PACT Act was signed into law in August 2022, the VA has received more than 1.5 million PACT Act-related claims, including more than 6,100 from Montana veterans and survivors, and nearly 129,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care under a PACT Act enrollment authority.

More than 866,000 veterans and survivors are receiving PACT Act-related benefits, including more than 4,100 veterans and survivors in Montana.