(NewsNation) — As President Joe Biden walked a victory lap Friday over legislation expanding benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins while in service, NewsNation found that veterans still struggle to get treatment and are their time is running out.
Veterans and advocates breathed a sigh of relief when Biden signed the PACT Act into law in August.
The law helps veterans get tested for toxin exposure. These include Agent Orange, which was used for deforestation during the Vietnam War, and burn pits, where trash was destroyed at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to screening, the Department of Veterans Affairs is required by law to assume that some respiratory diseases and cancers are related to burn areas. This allows veterans to receive disability benefits without having to prove direct causation.
After more than a decade of fighting, the hope was that these struggling members of the US military would receive much-needed treatment.
But veterans, including the veterans who personally led the effort to pass the PACT Act, told NewsNation that they are not getting the treatment they need right now and that, for many, their lives depend on it.
“It’s a difficult process,” said Leroy Torres, who suffers from exposure to toxic combustion pits.
When Torres, an Army veteran, returned to Washington, DC, last month to celebrate the first Veterans Day with PACT in place, the last place he wanted to end up was Veterans Affairs (VA).
“There were a lot of questions and the PACT Act, that kind of care wasn’t even mentioned, so I had to start over and retell the story,” he said.
They call it the war that followed them home.
Torres was exposed to combustion pits in Iraq, large holes in the ground where everything from hazardous waste to Humvees to human feces is dumped, doused with jet fuel and burned around the clock.
Since then, Torres and his wife Rosie have faced endless trips to the VA and received few responses.
“Even coming home, I already made an appointment with the VA,” Torres said. “But it’s like now we have to start with the primary care physician. And that will still take time.”
Rosie Torres said time is not on her side and is pleading with the VA to stop delaying or denying her husband treatment. And if they can’t do it, she said, the two will look to other hospitals for support.
“I don’t want him to be that missed opportunity,” said Rosie Torres, “if only we would have referred him to Mayo or brought on the right GI team.”
Rosie has led the charge in Congress for decades to raise awareness for her husband and the more than 3 million veterans exposed to burn pits.
Comedian Jon Stewart, an outspoken advocate for military veterans, has been by her side.
“We have lost many friends along the way. It’s not, it’s relief without celebration to a degree,” Stewart said.
Advocates say that while the PACT Act addresses compensation for veterans, it does not include clinical guidelines or a health care program similar to a 911 health care plan.
They are calling for more specialized care to ensure veterans are properly diagnosed and evaluated.
“I had to walk the person through this and explain why this was relevant and I followed up with the VA to ask them, ‘Okay, what’s the next step,’” said Bob Carey, a Navy veteran and advocate for the National Defense Committee. “They really don’t seem to know.”
Carey recently underwent a toxin exposure screening test and told NewsNation she was left in the dark.
He believes more congressional oversight will be needed to make sure the VA delivers on everything it promised.
“I tell myself, this is 2022, this is not 1822,” he said. “Exposure to toxic substances is nothing new.
Not everyone has had the chance to fight for better treatment.
Staff Sergeant Fred Brazel was on active duty and contracted cancer from the burn pits.
Brazel died of stage IV rectal cancer, which had metastasized to the liver because Department of Defense providers allegedly misdiagnosed his cancer and delayed treatment.
Beau Biden, the president’s eldest son, served as a major in the Delaware National Guard. He died of brain cancer in 2015, and the president has suggested that exposure to the burning pits at his base in Iraq may have been the cause.
On Friday, Biden touted the expanded health care benefits of the PACT Act.
“I made it very clear to the United States Congress that if they didn’t pass this bloody burn pits bill, I was going into a holy war. It’s not a joke,” Biden said. “It is one of the most important laws in our history to help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service.”
Biden urged veterans to sign up for benefits, get tested and file their claims.
More than 185,000 veterans have applied and more than 730,000 have been tested.
NewsNation reached out to the VA, told them about the veterans’ concerns, and is awaiting a response.
Veterans advocates tell NewsNation that they are working with Congress and the VA to raise awareness for better screening tools and technology to properly diagnose veterans, adding that there is no time to waste.
Associated Press contributed to this report.