AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Tracey Souza spends the later days of her ailing husband’s life caring for him — and ensuring the country he served cares for him, too.
Collecting medical records, scavenging for Vietnam War-era service papers, navigating the maze of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy: a labor of love for a husband who dedicated decades to service before illness sidelined him.
“He made the military his entire life,” Souza said. “Since the stroke, and then the Parkinson’s, he’s not as active as he used to be. There’s a lot of things he can’t do now. He can’t ride bikes, he can’t drive cars… it turned him upside down.”
Souza said her husband is one of thousands of veterans whose battle did not end when they returned home. The victims not of combatants, but of cancer — wounded not by bullets, but by burn pits.
“When you’re in the military at that time… the chemicals that they used over there in the perimeter of the flight line, I believe a lot of that has to do with it. I’m sure that they put a lot of chemicals on those C-130s,” she said. “I believe that he has worked with a lot of chemicals that weren’t sanctioned back then. I’m sure they didn’t even really know what they were putting on our soldiers.”
Last August, President Biden signed the PACT Act – the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics. It makes it easier for veterans like Souza’s husband to access medical care by presuming their illnesses were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals overseas. All in all, it’s a $280 billion expansion of medical coverage.
Souza said it has already made her life easier. Her husband served in Thailand, which was not previously included in the list of countries eligible for presumptive coverage. But she is still waiting to see the benefits.
“They need to be faster and take more initiative in our people that served for our country,” she said. “They fought for our country, they died for our country, they need to care about these people that need the extra help with these benefits. The VA can step in and help people that have these debilitating diseases get help.”
Nationwide, the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is processing a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applicants for PACT Act benefits. They have recorded 843,448 applications and have processed 458,659.
In Texas, the VA has received 94,185 claims. They have completed 49,870 – about half.
The Biden Administration said about 340,000 veterans are already receiving care as a result of the PACT Act, but there could be as many as five million veterans eligible. They have hired about 4,700 additional staffers for the VA to process claims.
“If you serve this country in uniform, this is something you deserve. And this is something that country owes you,” John Kirby with the National Security Council told Nexstar. “The Veterans Affairs Administration have increased resources and manpower to deal with additional screenings and to make sure they can deal with additional health care demands. So there’s more resources now available at the VA to make sure that the waitlist isn’t very long, and that you’ll get seen and get the care so that you can start living a more healthy life. And that’s what this is really all about.”
The VA has delivered more than $1.85 billion in PACT Act benefits. They say they are processing claims at a record rate – 1.65 million veteran claims so far this year, a 16 percent increase above the previous record.
“Thanks to President Biden, millions of Veterans who fought for our country are now getting health care and compensation for the conditions that followed them home from war,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “We’re proud that so many Veterans and survivors have already benefited from the PACT Act, but this is just the beginning: we won’t rest until every Veteran and every survivor gets the VA health care and benefits they deserve.”
Veterans are eligible to apply for benefits backdated to last August until 11:59 p.m. on Monday, August 14. Veterans may still apply for benefits after that point, although they will not be retroactive. Visit VA.gov\PACT to apply.