The Hill: Tester invites Montana veteran exposed to toxins to State of the Union

by Alexander Bolton

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) will bring Fred Hamilton, a veteran from Columbia Falls who had been exposed to toxins, as his guest to President Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday to highlight the more than 1 million veterans around the country who are being helped by a bill Tester helped enact in 2022.

Tester, the chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, led the push to get the Honoring our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act signed into law to help veterans suffering from illnesses related to toxic exposures. It’s named after Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, a combat medic who died in 2020 from toxic exposure related to his service in Iraq and Kosovo.

Tester is highlighting the issue of toxic exposure to military veterans — of whom nearly 90,000 live in Montana — by inviting Hamilton, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, to Biden’s speech.

“Montana veterans are the fabric that make our nation the very best in the world, so it’s my honor to bring Fred Hamilton, a top-notch Montana vet exposed to toxins in Vietnam and other countries, to the State of the Union address,” Tester announced.

“After 30 years of fighting, Fred is finally getting the VA benefits he earned in service to our country because of the PACT Act,” he said. “I’ll keep taking my cues from Montana veterans like Fred to ensure the government is honoring its promises to them.”

Hamilton thanked Tester for the invitation in a public statement, noting that Tester’s work helped him access Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and services.

“There’s still more work to do but I’m grateful for Sen. Tester’s persistent efforts and advocacy to get the PACT Act across the finish line,” he said.

Tester is also working with Hamilton on legislation to ensure that veterans whose military records were lost by the U.S. government can still receive VA benefits.

“I’m still fighting for additional benefits because my service records were lost by the federal government, and I want to thank Sen. Tester for listening to Montana veterans like me and taking this issue seriously by championing a new bill that will help me and other veterans whose records were lost by the government so this never happens again,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s military treatment records were lost after they were transferred from the Defense Department to the VA when he retired from military service.

Without those records, Hamilton was unable to prove his health conditions are service-connected and was denied benefits, leading to a 30-year effort to prove his medical conditions are related to his service in Vietnam.

The passage of the PACT Act in 2022 finally allowed him to access care and benefits from the VA.

The legislation, which Biden signed into law in August 2022, has allowed veterans to make more than 1.3 million claims related to toxic exposures. More than 6,000 of those claims have come from veterans in Montana.

Of the more than 692,000 veterans receiving PACT Act-related benefits, about 3,400 live in Tester’s home state.

Tester championed the legislation in 2022 as chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. He worked closely with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the ranking member of the Senate panel, then House Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and veterans service organizations.