TAMPA, Fla — A bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service is headed to President Biden's desk.
Veterans and their families spearheaded the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act. It aims to enhance health care and disability benefits for the more than three million veterans exposed to burn pits.
“It could be human waste. It could be chemicals; it could be communications equipment; it could be weapons; it could be carcasses of dead animals; we throw it all into the pit. We would pour jet fuel on it, and then we'd light it on fire," Retired U.S. Army Colonel DJ Reyes said.
Reyes told ABC Action News that sometimes thick black smoke would fill the air, making it difficult to even breathe.
“I’ve been exposed to it in the several tours I’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan," Reyes added.
Colonel Reyes said the fight to get the PACT Act across the finish line had been a long time coming.
“I can bet money that there’s a lot of people that are very happy," Reyes said.
Roughly 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure are denied by the V.A. due to lack of evidence.
The new legislation said certain veterans and their survivors no longer have to prove service connection if they are diagnosed with one of 23 conditions, including respiratory-related conditions and several forms of cancers. This bill marks a major milestone for veteran’s health care, but Colonel Reyes said it comes with its challenges.
"There's only always been a concern about the VA and their current infrastructure, that is their ability to absorb the potential 3.5 million veterans claims... I know that our veterans at least in greater Tampa Bay area, those that come with their claims, I know they're going to be taken care of. But it's my concern that the VA in general, that all of the medical centers will be able to take this on," Reyes explained.
The PACT Act requires that veterans enrolled in the VA Health care be screened regularly for toxic exposure.