Navarro rolled into the Arabian Peninsula in 1991 to setup 400-bed evacuation hospitals. The former biomedical engineer recalls the equipment hopping off the ground as Patriot missiles hit Scuds less than a mile away. Plumes from oil fields and ordnance pits clouded the sun.
“We’re offering exposure-focused care,” said Germaine Franciosi, after screening Navarro for toxic exposures following a benefits brief April 21 in the El Paso County Veterans Services classroom in Colorado Springs. Four nurses had arrived from Veterans Affairs (VA).
“This says, ‘let me take care of you,’” said Navarro, 66, about discussing his exposures and concerns. Among his records was a letter sent by Department of Defense officials in 2005 that warned of chemical exposures and cancer. “Every Veteran should get evaluated.”
In November, toxic-exposure screenings were integrated into primary care in VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System (ECHCS), which serves more than 100,000 Veterans in Denver Metro, Pikes Peak and rural areas. They are now occurring in specialty care, too.
With tens of thousands of Veterans screened in recent months, VA ECHCS nurses are working in their communities to complete thousands more.
“We’re encouraging Veterans to let their providers know about their exposures,” said Franciosi, who trains VA ECHCS nurses to complete the screenings, empowering them to identify and document toxic exposures with a focus on early diagnoses and treatments.
“If they were exposed to burn pits or Agent Orange, we can say, ‘Are you having trouble breathing?’ We will recommend when we think they should talk to their doctors, and if it’s something they need to talk to them now about, or down the road.”
“If the doctor sees concerning symptoms knowing the Veteran was exposed,” she said, “they may do a biopsy earlier. It can change how the doctor plans that person’s care.”
Franciosi also coordinates training for other clinical staff who volunteer to support the outreach. During a Saturday standdown in April, together they called 1,000 Veterans.
Of the 37,000 Veterans screened by VA ECHCS since Nov. 7, when the clinical practice was established, nearly half resulted in at least one exposure concern. Enrolled Veterans will continue to get screened for toxic exposures at least once every five years.
The sweeping effort started three months after what’s likely the largest expansion in VA care and benefits. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, was signed into law Aug. 10.
Under the new law, VA is recognizing more than 20 new presumptive conditions, including hypertension and various types of cancer and chronic respiratory conditions.
“This law helps us provide generations of Veterans—and their survivors—with the care and benefits they've earned and deserve,” said VA ECHCS Director Michael Kilmer. “VA will not rest until every Veteran gets the toxic exposure-related care and benefits they deserve.”
‘They protected us, now we must protect them’
A Marine Corps mortarman during the Gulf War, Dennis Levings of Colorado Springs remembers a time when oil fell from the sky. Plumes blocked the sun. Days seemed darker than nights as persistent fires powered an orange glow across the dunes.
“I enlisted when I was 18 years old,” said Levings, 55. “At the time, it was no pain, no gain—pain is just weakness leaving your body. But now, pain is just your age catching up to you.”
“I’ve done all this stuff—got injured, got broken and had treatments—but now it’s developing into something more,” he said. “So why not get the care and compensation?”
“We need to spread the word,” he said. “You’ve done this, you’ve earned this, you deserve to get this. Why wait?”
Veterans who apply for PACT Act-related benefits before Aug. 10 will have benefits backdated to Aug. 10 last year—the day the bill was signed.
VA began granting benefits for terminally ill Veterans with a presumptive condition Dec. 12, ahead of officially starting PACT Act-related claims processing Jan. 1. Of the first 200,000 claims completed for Veterans and their survivors, 80.5-percent were approved, according to the VA PACT Act performance dashboard April 14.
“You see things different as you get older,” said Army Veteran Judson Willis of Colorado Springs. A range officer in Kuwait, he was exposed to burning rubber and debris.
“As the officer, you cannot show weakness, so you just push it down and don’t worry about it,” said Willis, who transitioned from Fort Carson in 2019. As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions took hold, he found plenty of time to consider health concerns.
“That’s when I started to see that the VA was here to help,” he said.
“This helps us know that our service is appreciated. They care about what happens to us after we’re put in dangerous situations.”
Franciosi says it’s about fulfilling the VA mission.
“The most important thing is Veterans get the care they need,” she said. “They protected us, now we must protect them.”
Veterans enrolled in VA ECHCS may request a screening by sending a message in MyHealtheVet or leaving a voicemail at 720-857-2511.
To apply today for benefits or learn more about PACT Act claims and care, call 1-800-MYVA411 or visit VA.gov/PACT.
For more information on how to apply for VA health care, including the documents needed to determine eligibility, visit VA.gov/health-care/how-to-apply.