Kerrie Wieners says her late husband Robert joined the Army Reserves because it gave him a sense of order.
"He loved the travel; he loved the camaraderie. It just worked for him," she said.
After his service, Wieners questioned a potential connection between Robert's bout with stage 4 lung cancer and exposure to burn pits.
She contacted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010 to see if there were any potential studies and got a benefit rejection letter instead.
"I was just telling them that my husband was sick, and I wanted to help any other soldier that might be having symptoms to just get some medical attention," she said.
Military advocates say things have changed since then thanks to the PACT Act, which stands for Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics. The piece of legislation expanded health care and benefit coverage for veterans exposed to certain toxics, like those associated with burn pits and even Agent Orange.
The bill adds more than 20 presumptive conditions for those serving in certain places during certain times, removing the need to prove the illness was service connected.
"Basically what that means is that if you were a Vietnam veteran and you served in Vietnam and you have hypertension, guess what? The VA automatically assumes that it's because of your service," said Terrence Hayes, Department of Veterans Affairs press secretary.
While there is no deadline to apply for benefits, Aug. 9 is the date veterans and survivors should file by to receive the maximum monetary amounts available. Veteran PACT Act claims filed by that date could receive benefits backdated to Aug. 10 of last year.
Aug. 9 is also important for primary survivors who had previously been denied benefits to receive backdated benefits to the date of their original denial. Experts say that could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for some.
"So far, we've had more than 600,000 folks apply for their benefits, and as of right now, I'm happy to say that we are a little over 278,000 who have been granted their benefits," Hayes said.
The VA is currently experiencing a backlog of 230,000 claims. Those are claims that have been in VA processing for more than 125 days.
Still, Hayes tells Scripps News the department has hired 3,100 adjudicators to deal with the expected uptick in applicants, and that veterans should apply anyway to get the process started.
There are other illnesses assumed to be associated with burn pits that didn't make the presumed condition list, like migraines and infertility. Hayes says those who think they have been impacted in any way should apply, too.
"We just need to talk to you know, get the proper paperwork and then we can have our adjudicators work with you," Hayes said.
The VA is also working to screen those who may have been exposed, screening 3.7 million so far. This summer, it will begin hosting events across the country to get veterans screened and signed up for benefits.
"Oftentimes their loved one's cancer was misdiagnosed for years, and we know there is a big difference between stage 1 and stage 4 cancer, so detection is important, getting it early," said Candace Wheeler, director of government and legislative affairs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).
"This community bears the total brunt; not just the soldier, but the spouse, the kids, the caregivers, everything. And they shouldn't have to do it alone," veterans advocate and TV host Jon Stewart told Scripps News.
Stewart says his passion for this group goes back to his long work with the United Service Organizations and visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he was struck by the humility of many.
"When you start to involve yourself in a community, you become invested, and they're not that different from ... they're the people that run towards something to protect others and not away from it. Not that different than the 911 first responder community," he said.
While the bill brings care to those who've been exposed, burn pits and open burning sites still exist in some places.
Stewart, who fought for the legislation, told Scripps News long-term changes to the way the U.S. deals with toxic exposures will require a cultural shift.
"It's never added into the total cost of the war, so we don't budget for it," Stewart said. "And when you don't budget for it, and then somebody comes back and says, 'Hey, here's the bill,' and you're like, 'Oh, man. I didn't order leukemia.' So it's a fight to get the money to take care of the people that took care of us."
In the meantime, he and veteran advocacy groups like TAPS are encouraging veterans and survivors to apply even if they've been denied before.
"Sometimes our veterans self-select themselves out, and they think, 'Okay, I really wasn't exposed to anything, you know, that bad. My brother-in-arms was exposed to more than I was.' Well, that may not be the case," Wheeler said.
"There has been a mistrust, right, that has built up over the years reputationally ... and getting people back into the system, you know, we don't make it easy," Stewart said. "That's why this change that's in the VA administration and the way that they're approaching it and all the VSOs and MSOs, the way they're approaching it is a real difference. It's a real change."
Wieners says she didn't want to apply at first but did after a chat with TAPS. She was able to receive benefits backdated to that 2010 denial and says it feels as though her late husband is still taking care of things.
"I finally feel like I'm going to be okay, and I feel supported and validated," she said.
Veterans interested in benefit eligibility should visit VA.go/PACT.
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