Next week, just before the nation marks Veterans Day, the federal government will begin screening patients at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals to find out whether they were exposed to dangerous chemicals during service.
The screening is a result of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, which became law in August. Veterans Affairs officials say the PACT Act is likely the largest expansion of health benefits in agency history.
It means that veterans will no longer have to fight to prove to the VA that certain tumors, cancers, chronic respiratory illnesses and skin conditions resulted from exposure to toxins while they were in the military.
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From now on, the VA will presume that a long list of health problems were brought on by contact with noxious substances, including those emanating from burn pits – large open fires used by the military to dispose of chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal and aluminum cans, munitions, unexploded ordnance, lubricants, petroleum products, plastics, rubber, wood and food waste.
News of next week’s screenings is a relief to veterans of Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and other conflicts who have struggled to get the VA to cover the costs of often dire medical conditions.
VA officials told Congress two years ago that only 20 percent of 12,000 applications for burn pit-related illnesses were approved for veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf between 2007 and 2020.
But veterans’ battles with the VA have raged for much longer than that.
In the 1970s, Vietnam veterans suffering with liver and lung cancers, lymphomas, leukemias, Parkinson’s disease, heart ailments, skin conditions, neurological disorders, and birth defects in their children began to suspect Agent Orange.
It’s a spray that was used extensively by the U.S. military to clear the jungles of Vietnam. Agent Orange contained dioxin, now known to be one of the most harmful contaminants on earth.
It’s “awful” that, more than 40 years later, veterans again had to fight to be treated for chemical exposure on battlefields, said Jimmy Sparrow of Stamford, a former Marine corporal and rifleman in Vietnam.
It’s “history repeating itself,” Sparrow said.
“It seems like we don’t learn from our mistakes,” he said.
For the last several years veterans and their advocates have lobbied for the VA to recognize that exposure to burn pit smoke and other toxins was behind a dozen cancers – including brain, head, neck, lung, kidney and pancreas – and another dozen chronic respiratory and skin diseases.
When the PACT Act finally came before Congress over the summer, it – unusually – had backing from senators and representatives from both political parties, and from President Joe Biden. The president attributes the brain cancer that killed his son, Beau, an Army major who served in Iraq, to burn-pit exposure.
The act adds two dozen health conditions to the list of those presumed to be caused by toxins; streamlines the VA’s process for deciding whether veterans qualify for care; provides for regular screening of veterans; trains VA medical professionals about toxic exposure; improves research; and will fund 31 new VA facilities nationwide.
It will expand care to as many as 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxins, including about 10,000 in Connecticut, VA officials have said. The law will cost about $300 billion over the next 10 years.
The PACT Act is huge. But the effort to win health care for veterans exposed to battlefield toxins started very small.
In the years following the Vietnam war, it was organized by dozens of individual grassroots groups of veterans in the nation’s towns and cities.
One was Stamford, where 28-year-old city resident Paul Reutershan, who’d been a helicopter door gunner and crew chief in Vietnam, was in and out of the hospital, under treatment for an abdominal cancer that would kill him.
When Reutershan was unable to continue working at his job as a train conductor, he contacted the VA to see if he qualified for disability benefits to help him pay his medical bills.
But the VA would not acknowledge a connection between Reutershan’s cancer and his military service, so he called Post 10013, a Stamford VFW hall then on Cove Road.
When he could, Reutershan would visit the VFW post, a haven for Sparrow and fellow Vietnam veterans.
“One day he came in with a newspaper, I think it was the New York Daily News,” Sparrow said. “There was a little paragraph on page 10 or something; it didn’t even have a byline. It said there was this chemical that was sprayed in Vietnam called Agent Orange, and it may cause cancer. So Paul started researching.”
There was no internet, so Reutershan gathered book and magazine articles, and made phone calls.
“He was using the pay phone in the bar at the VFW,” Sparrow said. “Before we knew it, he was getting calls from all over the country, and even from Europe.”
In the final weeks of his life, Reutershan formed a group, Agent Orange Victims International. He did newspaper, television and radio interviews, drawing national attention. Just before he died in December 1978, he made his sister, Jane Dziedzic, Sparrow and other Vietnam veterans promise to continue the work.
In 1979 they started sending questionnaires to thousands of veterans, researching cancer-causing chemicals, mapping the places in Southeast Asia where Agent Orange was sprayed, and meeting with veterans’ groups, doctors, lawyers, scientists and politicians. They found a New York attorney who was practicing environmental law – a new field at the time – and convinced him to work with them.
Behind the bar at the VFW, the pay phone kept ringing.
“It was the only link for all the people Paul had contacted,” Sparrow said. “While we were doing what we were doing, some of them were doing the same thing. There was a guy in the Dakotas, a guy from Boston. There was a woman who worked for the VA in Chicago. We were all coming to the same conclusion.”
Under Agent Orange Victims International, they sued Dow, Monsanto and the other big chemical companies that produced Agent Orange. In 1984, they settled for $240 million, the largest class-action wrongful injury suit of the time. The suit represented 250,000 veterans.
In ensuing years the group continued to fight the VA to cover a growing list of health conditions related to Agent Orange exposure, including those originating from birth defects suffered by the children of Vietnam veterans.
The PACT Act doesn’t leave out Vietnam veterans. It added hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy to the list of medical conditions presumed to stem from Agent Orange exposure, and it added several sites of exposure, including Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.
Agent Orange was everywhere, Sparrow said.
“There was a misconception that you had to get sprayed, but most people were affected by drinking the water and eating the food,” he said.
When veterans started talking about Agent Orange in the late 1970s, “I was constantly getting confronted,” Sparrow said. “I was told, even by veterans organizations, that it was all BS and I was spreading fear.”
Back then, “whoever heard of Agent Orange? People thought we were nuts,” Sparrow said. “At least, now, people are taking veterans more seriously.”
The federal government banned the manufacture of products containing dioxin in 1979. The Department of Defense has not officially banned burn pits, according to the Military Times, but use has been significantly scaled back.