LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Michigan veterans and supporters are praising the signing of historic health care legislation into federal law.
Advocates for the Honoring Our PACT Act said this is a monumental moment for millions of people living with the scars of war that might not always be visible. One veteran who was at Wednesday’s signing said this is fulfilling an old promise.
“You told us that if we served and we served honorably, you were going to take care of us and that’s what this shows,” said Kevin Hensley, national legislative representative of VFW Michigan.
An Air force vet, Hensley joined other former service members and activists at the White House as the bipartisan act was signed into law. The signing comes at the end of a long, laborious chapter in the fight for improved veteran health care.
Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs will recognize more than 20 presumed service-related illnesses.
A VA spokesperson said this will bring health care and additional benefits to “generations” of vets, from those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war to post-9/11 veterans suffering from burn pit toxins.
Over the course of eight deployments to the Middle East, Hensley said he remembers one tour where the snow of ash would fall over his tent near an open burn pit.
“They burned pretty much everything from body parts to medical waste. From lead-based paints to regular trash of Styrofoam, plastics, even tires and broken down vehicles, they put in this pit,” he said.
Hensley says it wasn’t until 2017 and nearly $30,000 in tests and medical equipment, that he was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis.
He said the disease makes it difficult to exhale, resulting in a lack of oxygen getting to his brain. Hensley isn’t alone. Lansing native Phillip Button deployed to Iraq with a National Guard unit in 2008. He said it’s been an uphill battle getting recognition from the VA for respiratory issues, and that those scars have made it hard to spend time with his kids.
“Reading a book to my daughter sometimes takes the breath out of me after reading a couple of sentences,” said Button.
Button hopes the PACT Act means better oversight and care for future vets.
“You know, believe what we say when we say ‘This happened over there,’ and you know, give us the benefit of the doubt,” Button said.
A VA spokesperson said the department is encouraging vets to file new claims right away. They will begin processing those benefits as soon as January 1.