How many veterans died from complications of inhaling deadly toxic fumes from burn pits while serving overseas in a time of military conflict? Sadly, the answer to that question will likely never be known.
During Thursday’s Veterans Talk Program at the Roanoke Valley Veterans Museum, retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Art Melycher opened his presentation with a horrifying story concerning a police officer from his hometown in northwest Connecticut. The police officer was one of 25 members of an Air Guard military police unit deployed in Operation Desert Storm.
“When they came back, he was the first one of the 25 guys that ended up with terrible brain cancer,” Melycher said. “He died. Of the 25 guys in this unit, 22 died from brain cancer. There was nothing from the Veterans Administration because of the burn pits. It was terrible.”
Melycher didn’t blame the VA for not providing benefits for the veterans suffering from the taxi chemical exposure. He said the people in the VA did what they could, but what they didn’t know, what they didn’t know. Times are changing.
Melycher said newfound knowledge of the impacts of military personnel exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange, and toxic substances led to the recently congressionally passed PACT Act to provide much-needed healthcare for those veterans. It’s one of the most prominent benefit expansions in the history of the VA.
More than 20 burn pit and toxic exposure presumptive conditions are newly added in the legislation. The veterans primarily impacted are the Gulf War era and post 9-11 personnel. Cancers of any type, respiratory, pulmonary, and many other health issues qualify under the parameters of the legislation.
Access to healthcare for local veterans who could qualify for PACT Act benefits is significantly better than a year ago.
“Last year trying to get a call through to Community Care in Durham, I was put on hold for 40 minutes, never had a phone call returned, and it took forever,” Melycher said. “They hired 100 new people to handle the incoming calls to Community Care, so if you call down there, the wait is not long, and they’ll take care of it right away.”
In the last year, people watching television or listening to the radio have been inundated with commercials by attorneys seeking clients that could qualify in a lawsuit concerning adverse health outcomes due to the water supply at the North Carolina Marine Corps base in Camp Lejeune. Melycher said Camp Lejeune is a free program, and qualifying veterans and their families do not need an attorney to join the legal action.
While working with the VA, Melycher saw veterans hurt themselves financially in a similar situation to the Camp Lejeune lawsuit by lawyering up.
“We had a couple of veterans that did something like that,” Melycher said. “They hired a lawyer for a disability claim. For the rest of their life the lawyer gets a third of their checks every month.”
The PACT Act is a new tool helping qualifying veterans get the healthcare they earned. It’s not the only recent change with the VA. Melycher said the VA now accepts military service claims it did not recently recognize as valid. The newly discovered knowledge of the cause and effect of adverse exposure to substances while on duty is growing every day. Melycher urges veterans with previously denied claims to refile them. There is a decent chance the claims will be accepted.
Melycher said he would be glad to assist any veterans who need help on how to proceed with filing for benefits through the VA. Give the retired Navy Chief Petty Officer a call at 860-307-5103.
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