Veterans face gaps in coverage when seeking care for Superfund site exposure and other health concerns.
Julie Akey, a former Army linguist, began to face an unexpected diagnosis of multiple myeloma at just 46 — an illness typically associated with those over 65. This revelation, often termed the “old man’s disease,” startled Akey, especially given her absence of family history with this relatively rare blood cancer. In her quest for potential causes, Akey discovered that her former residence, Fort Ord, California, had been declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991 due to substantial soil and groundwater contamination, primarily from the military’s use of trichloroethylene (TCE).
Fort Ord is emblematic of a broader issue affecting veterans nationwide. Military sites, both active and decommissioned, have become hotspots for environmental pollution, raising health concerns for former service members and their families who resided and worked in areas now identified as contaminated.
The range of potential exposures and related health issues is extensive — firefighters facing testicular cancer linked to Defense Department foam, higher rates of brain and nervous system cancers among military aviation crews, non-Hodgkin lymphoma in missileers, and an elevated risk of breast cancer among female troops.
These concerns led to the passage of the 2022 Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act—a landmark expansion of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits.
However, a significant gap exists in the PACT Act. While it facilitates benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxins abroad, those suspecting illnesses resulting from contamination on U.S. soil, like at Fort Ord, fall outside its coverage. This leaves them grappling with the arduous task of proving their illnesses are “service connected.”
Akey, armed with research linking TCE exposure to multiple myeloma and other blood cancers, confronted denial twice for her claim. This summer, she resubmitted her claim, expressing frustration at the seemingly protracted process—waiting, denying, and, hopefully, awaiting approval.
Akey’s experience reflects the broader challenges veterans encounter while seeking acknowledgment and support for illnesses tied to their military service.
The VA has traditionally operated with a two-tiered system, where certain conditions are automatically accepted as presumptive conditions tied to service, enabling a streamlined benefits process. The PACT Act extended this provision to veterans affected by burn pits and other environmental pollutants abroad. However, those suspecting illnesses caused by contamination on U.S. soil face a complex process with minimal assistance.
Fort McClellan in Alabama is another example. While not designated a Superfund site, the former installation potentially faced contamination with radioactive compounds and chemical warfare agents. Veterans who trained at Fort McClellan, like Bill Bonk, emphasize the challenges they face, comparing the situation to other presumptive conditions recognized for those serving in Vietnam or at Camp Lejeune.
Betty Seaman, whose husband, Navy Capt. Jim Seaman, served at Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan, encounters similar obstacles. The base, once home to a commercial incinerator emitting black smoke, has been linked to cancers among those stationed there. However, the stringent requirements of the PACT Act concerning locations present difficulties for many veterans seeking claims.
The struggle that many veterans face is compounded by the challenge of directly connecting environmental exposure to specific medical conditions. Decades may elapse between exposure and the emergence of related illnesses, making prompt presumptive conditions challenging.
The federal government’s historical reluctance or delay in recognizing connections between contaminants and illnesses, as observed with Agent Orange, burn pits, and other instances, further complicates veterans’ challenges.
The PACT Act has heightened awareness, prompting military and VA studies on potential exposures at various locations. The Air Force is investigating cancer rates among personnel at nuclear missile bases, and the VA is conducting an epidemiological study of Fort McClellan. The Department of Defense is testing military firefighters’ PFAS levels, a development welcomed by veterans and advocacy groups.
Yet, for affected veterans, progress feels slow. Shane Liermann, a former Marine and national deputy legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, emphasizes the need for swifter action. Under Secretary Denis McDonough’s leadership, the VA encourages veterans to file claims even if their conditions aren’t listed as presumptive, indicating a potential shift toward a more inclusive approach.
The PACT Act has indeed increased awareness of environmental exposures, but it also illuminates gaps in coverage for veterans who faced contamination within the U.S. As the VA and military conduct studies and investigations, veterans persist in their struggle with illnesses, seeking acknowledgment and support for conditions they believe are linked to their service. The fight continues, not just for individual claims but for broader recognition and action to ensure veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve.