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More than 200 Veterans attend Fremont PACT Act Claims Clinic in April

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Two-day event gives Veterans opportunity to learn about new law and VA benefits, begin VA claims process

FREMONT, Neb. —  More than 200 area Veterans traveled to Christensen Field in Fremont to learn more about the new "Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act,” file new or check on existing claims, or learn more about enrolling for VA benefits and services during a special two-day PACT Act Claims Clinic, April 3-4.

The event was hosted by the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Lincoln Regional Office, in partnership with VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, to give Veterans an opportunity to discuss their military service and exposure to toxins with VA representatives. The Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs as well as other state, county and local organizations also supported the event.

The PACT Act was enacted on August 10, 2022. The legislation broadened VA health care and benefits for Veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances during their military service — domestically or overseas — including Veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Global War on Terror, or any other post-9/11 combat zone. Even Veterans who were never deployed but were exposed to toxins or hazards during training or active duty within the United States are also eligible.

As of March 5, three new groups of Veterans are now eligible for VA health care, years ahead of the timeline originally outlined by the PACT Act:

  • Veterans who were exposed to toxins or other hazards during military service.
  • Veterans who were stationed in certain areas in Southwest Asia or parts of Africa; and 
  • Veterans who were deployed in support of certain operations after 9/11.

“We’re trying to give Veterans an opportunity in some potentially underserved areas, some rural areas… to come in, speak to VA personnel, speak to county service officers from the area and have an opportunity to get their questions answered,” said Nathan Whisenhunt, a VA change management agent and public affairs officer with the Lincoln VBA Regional Office during an interview with the Fremont Tribune newspaper. 

“They can talk to VA health personnel to talk about eligibility and all the different healthcare services provided,” Whisenhunt said. “We also like to provide the opportunity to get their disability compensation claim established that day.”

According to Jerrod Wilson, center manager for the Lincoln VBA Regional Office, the turnout on both days exceeded his team’s initial expectations.

“I think it’s a wonderful turnout. Anytime we plan these events — and we start planning for these things in the fall — we are hoping for at least 100 (attendees) for a multi-day event. So, we’re on pace to potentially have north of 200 in a two-day event,” Wilson said during the same newspaper interview. 

“Everybody is welcome. Anybody that’s got questions: Veterans, spouses, family members, friends, anyone,” Wilson said. “Anybody that has contact with the veteran and maybe has some questions, come in.”

One of the 239 Veterans who attended the Fremont clinic was Donald Bell, 63, who served as a communications specialist in the U.S. Air Force from 1982-89. Bell, an Oregon native, was stationed at various locations, including Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

As a self-described "ground rat," Bell worked on high-frequency and single-sideband radios and handled ground-to-air communications for fighter squadrons. 

"I worked in the control tower in Germany for a while, fixing radios for the air traffic controllers. We worked on the giant voice, which was a siren system. They would tell you if we were under attack or something," Bell recalled.

Bell said as a ‘ground rat’ his work on radios often involved cleaning solvents; “You know, that isn't the healthiest stuff to breathe in," he said.

After leaving the military in 1989, Bell settled in eastern Nebraska, where he met his wife. Bell traveled to the Fremont Claims Clinic with the goal of filing a disability claim with the VA related to health conditions he believes may be connected to his military service and exposures. 

Bell encouraged other younger Veterans who may be hesitant to seek VA benefits and healthcare to explore all options. "I would tell anybody, any young Veteran, to seek VA benefits and healthcare. Veterans who served his country, you need to find out what this country owes you,” Bell said. “It never hurts to try.”

Another Veteran attending the Fremont PACT Act Claims Clinic was Chris Andreasen, 35, who served as a Marine Corps rifleman from 2007-11. He took time to share some of the experiences he had with toxic exposures during his previous deployments to Afghanistan.

"Burning was the only way we eliminated waste everywhere you went in Afghanistan. So, if you're back at a forward operating base with huge burn pits, even out at our smaller combat outposts, we burned everything we had there," Andreasen said.

"I don't think there's any other way at that time that we were getting rid of anything other than burning it,” Andreasen added. “Everything you could think of that we used and had to dispose of went into a burn pit.”

Andreasen said this past exposure led him to attend the Fremont event.  "I want to get checked out for any possible exposure, anything that could be wrong because of the burn pits.”

He also echoed Bell’s words in encouraging Veterans to reach out to the VA to better understand the implications of the PACT Act, to establish a record of potential toxic exposures and health issues early on, and to proactively explore VA benefits options now to avoid possible issues seeking compensation or care if health problems emerge.

“Now's the perfect time to submit claims for burn pits if you were exposed; you don't know what it's going to be like for you 10 or 20 years down the road," he said.

During the two-day event, Whisenhunt said more than a dozen VBA claims specialists supporting the Claims Clinic reviewed a total of 235 claims, of which 37 were original claims, while 93 others were PACT Act Claims. VBA specialists also ordered nearly 400 individual exams over the two-day period.

 According to Dave Conrad, an outreach specialist with VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, he saw more than 100 Veterans during the two-day event. Of these, more than 30 began the process of enrolling for VA health care.

Conrad said the Veterans represented all walks of life and multiple eras of military service.  

"I just had three Gulf War Marines who just came in and filled out forms and health care applications,” said Conrad. 

Conrad said events like the PACT Act Claims Clinic are important in connecting Veterans with the VA and other services. The goal, he said, is to provide Veterans with information and assistance, especially those Veterans who live far from a VA medical center. 

For some Veterans, the process can be intimidating if they are unsure of their eligibility. Conrad advised any hesitant Veterans to connect with the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System Business Office or local county Veteran service officers and ask questions.  

The overriding goal, Conrad added, is to "get a Veteran enrolled into the system for getting the services they're asking for," looking at all possible qualifications beyond just the PACT Act. 

The Fremont Claims Clinic was the first of several planned PACT Act outreach events planned for 2024. Additional PACT Claims Clinics are already planned for: 

  • North Platte, June 4-5 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the D&N Event Center at 501 East Walker Road in North Platte.
  • O’Neill/Atkinson, July 17-18 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Atkinson Community Center located at 206 West 5th Street in Atkinson, Neb.

Conrad encouraged all Veterans to come out and learn more about the PACT Act and the benefits and services that the VA offers.

“Don't think that you might not qualify—come in and see what you may be eligible for."

Editor’s Note: Several quotes were taken from an interview that occurred between members of the VA and the Fremont Tribune newspaper. The article appeared on April 8, 2024.