SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — An expansion of medical benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxins was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10.
Receiving bipartisan support, the Honoring our PACT Act of 2022 took over a year to make it through the legislative process.
More than 3.5 million veterans will now be eligible for immediate benefits if they suffer from any of 23 health issues, including certain cancers and respiratory illnesses. The services — which include a $2,000 monthly stipend and additional access to loans and scholarships — extend to survivors of veterans and their families.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act was rolled into the Honoring Our PACT Act. This leads the way for veterans exposed to contaminated water at the North Carolina base to sue the government and recover damages from their resulting adverse health effects.
Attorney Harry Blalock, a U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam veteran and founding member of Blalock LLC, announced he will offer his services and firm’s support to the more than 1 million impacted veterans from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, 60 miles north of Wilmington. He is offering free case evaluations for impacted veterans.
“As veterans we have dedicated great portions of our lives in the service of justice with courage and honor,” Blalock said in a press release. “Our mission of service to veterans is the single focus of our firm.”
The law allows for compensation to families of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, as well as civilians and staff members who worked there. Some individuals living at the base between 1953 and 1987 have developed kidney cancer, multiple myeloma, leukemia and other forms of cancer after drinking water was found to contain a variety of toxic compounds.
Of those affected, only 25% of the 5,792 toxicity claims filed between January 2011 and June 2019 were approved by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
The veterans administration will now accept all eligible candidates without requiring a “burden of proof” indicating they had suffered from exposure. Many veterans have been refused medical coverage, letters of denial stating they could not prove their health issues were linked to toxic exposure during their service.
While the bill applies to veterans who served overseas, specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan, and inhaled smoke from burn pits, it also aids those who served in the Vietnam War and were exposed to Agent Orange.
Burn pits were often dug overseas, massive holes sometimes up to 10 acres wide, for soldiers to light on fire anything from plastics to toxin materials to body parts and ammunition. The long-term exposure to the residual smoke led to many suffering from severe aftereffects once they returned home.
Introduced in June 2021 by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and guided by the input of toxic-exposed veterans, Honoring our PACT Act had strong support from comedian and political commentator Jon Stewart, at the forefront of its advocacy.
The bill passed the House (256-174) on March 3; Rep. David Rouzer voted “nay.”
Stewart visited Wilmington April 13 and hosted a rally downtown that led to the Murchison building, home of Sen. Richard Burr’s offices. He was one of nine Republican votes needed to get the legislation over the Senate hurdle. At the last minute, Burr voted yes and helped the act become law.
Veterans spent the last few months protesting in front of the White House; the bill passed the Senate (84-14) on June 16 with 11 Republicans voting against its passage, including North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis.
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