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Milwaukee VA encourages veterans exposed to toxic chemicals to apply for PACT Act benefits

People gathering information at a table
Milwaukee County VA Medical Center
Veterans line up at information booth to learn about PACT Act benefits.

Veterans, Veteran Affairs personnel and community members gathered at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center last Friday. They were there to hear how the new PACT Act law may help them and their loved ones.

PACT is short for the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins.

Supporters of the measure boast it will expand VA health care and benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances. The PACT Act received bipartisan backing in Congress earlier this year and President Joe Biden signed it into law in August.

At the Milwaukee event, John Polk, a Chapter service officer for disabled American veterans and a Vietnam War veteran, urged those who may be in need to apply for benefits.

Polk told the crowd he's grateful that the PACT Act is in place because there wasn't something like it when he came home from service.

"Many Vietnam veterans passed before Agent Orange presumptives were in place. And because of this, it's impossible or difficult at best to properly care for their survivors," he said.

Polk said the law covers veterans of all eras and also applies to future veterans as well.

Specifically for the Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans, the law adds nearly two dozen presumptive conditions related to burn pit exposure, meaning veterans who served in overseas locations with active burn pits no longer have to prove their exposure.

Veterans accepted into the PACT Act program can receive up to $4,000 in disability compensation. And, family members or dependents of a deceased veteran may qualify for health, financial and burial assistance.

Lance Malcom Hunt
Milwaukee County VA Medical Center
The VA Medical Center
Lance Corporal Malcolm Hunt speaking with WUWM.

After Polk and a few others shared their experiences with the crowd, a man wearing a clerical collar introduced himself as Lance Corporal Malcolm Hunt. He told me he served with the Third Marine Division in Vietnam in1968 and he refers to himself as "the Walking Dead."

"I'm still having problems dealing with some of the things that happened when I was in Vietnam because I was around a lot of killing. I've seen a lot of death. Matter of fact during the daytime you could just smell death in the air in Vietnam. There's a lot of vets that need to deal with the bombing and the Agent Orange and a lot of other napalm and a lot of other stuff that was dropped on us," Hunt explained.

Hunt stressed how important it was for the community of veterans to come together around the PACT Act. He said only a veteran can help another veteran, and noted there are many Black veterans in the city who need assistance — including with spiritual and mental health care.

"Well, I'm saying to all the vets, especially to the Black vets, it's time for you to come, and come and sit down. They could come out to the VA hospital. I'm gonna be doing some things where they can sit down and get a lot of this stuff — that they've been holding a lot of stuff with them that they need to get out of their system," Hunt said.

The PACT Act requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran enrolled in VA health service. The screening takes no longer than 15 minutes. So far, about 176,000 PACT Act claims have been filed nationwide and processing is set to begin in January.

>> More information on the PACT Act and benefits can be found here.

Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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