Paul E. Dillard • Published 5:03 a.m. ET May 31, 2022
Any day now, the U.S. Senate will consider a bill that will be a life-changer for veterans that have been exposed to poisons of war. The Honoring Our Pact Act has passed the House of Representatives and has the bipartisan support of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Ranking Member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.
People of my generation understand the cost of exposure to dangerous substances. The Vietnam War Memorial is as jarring as it is moving because the names on those panels provide context to the price that was paid. But those names only symbolize the down payment.
Thousands have died because of Agent Orange related illnesses. Instead of bullets, bombs and shrapnel, they endured years of chemotherapy, radiation and other painful treatments.
It was the American Legion that proved to be their greatest advocate. After years of delays and obfuscation from administrations of both parties, this organization convinced Washington that men and women exposed to this deadly contaminant must have access to Veterans Affairs health care and benefits.
We owe the same to the current generation of veterans. The Honoring Our PACT Act will provide health care for more than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to contaminants as a result of burn pits during the Global War on Terror. Many were exposed to environmental hazards just by being stationed in certain areas and breathing in toxic chemicals.
The PACT Act also gives overdue recognition to veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos as well as veterans exposed to atomic testing and clean-up operations. The bill will establish presumptions of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers linked to burn pits and other hazards. It will increase VA assets and staff.
Doug Chace is an Indiana veteran who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan during his Army career.
“I could peel skin off as a sheet off my hands and off my feet, which was tied to these persistent chemicals I came into contact with. But the VA said it was not service-connected due to the rules that they had to follow,” Chace recently told WTHR. “The fact that I have lung damage due to breathing all these toxins and the sulfur mine fires and everything else? They told me that it was ‘seasonal allergies.’ There are a lot of things that I picked up while I was in combat that when I came back, they determined were not service-connected.”
Fortunately, Chace is still with us but so many are not. We hear a lot about cost from Washington these days. But what is a life worth? What do you tell a parent, spouse or a child about fiscal budgets when their loved one is gone?
We have spent trillions rebuilding other countries from the ravages of war. These men and women, however, are also a cost of war and those bills must be paid.
Over the last few months, I have traveled to 11 states, ranging from Alaska to Georgia, to meet with Legionnaires and build support for this once in a generation piece of legislation.
During my travels, I have been telling American Legion Family members to contact their U.S. senators. If any senator or congressional staff member says that they have less expensive legislative options, I like to ask a few simple questions.
“Which veterans should we leave behind? Those exposed to burn pits? Those with Gulf War Illness? Atomic veterans? Camp Lejeune veterans? Those who only have Stage 3 cancer?
Who should we leave behind? And if we don’t pass this now, then when?”
President Lincoln’s promise – “To Care for Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle” defines who we are as an American Legion. We also include women as equal partners in this promise.
Does Lincoln’s promise define us as a country? That is a question that I am hoping Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun can answer on behalf of Hoosier veterans and the men and women across this country who have answered their nation’s call.
Paul E. Dillard is a Vietnam War veteran and national commander of the nearly 2-million-member American Legion.