The PACT Act deadline has extended to Aug. 14 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — August 10 is a big day for veterans across the United States to know. It’s the deadline for the back pay benefits under the PACT Act, which allows certain veterans who have health issues due to toxic chemical exposure to get additional health benefits through the Veterans Affairs.
When Army veteran Brian Ashby joined ROTC in high school, he had no idea where his journey in the military would take him.
“Once I graduated high school, I decided to go reservists,” he said. “I was reservists for about a year and a half on the reserve program. Then I went to basic training in AIT, which was advanced training, and then when we Desert Storm start up. I decided that I needed to go in have to do and so I went active duty and got stationed in Germany, right away.”
In January of 1991, he deployed to Saudi Arabia working with a communications unit installing first-of-its-kind technology that we’re very familiar with today.
“We set up a brand new equipment network that was actually some of the first cellular technology in the world,” said the Fayetteville American Legion Post 27 member. “It was a lot of cranking up the antenna, picking up the truck, making sure everything comes up and online, letting anybody who had that type of radio, that type of telephone in their vehicle. It was literally a cell phone network, and I was on the cell phone tower.”
He and his crew were also dealing with an invisible, airborne enemy.
“The burn pits could be anything from human waste to to just the trash,” he said. “And of course, you saw that being burned, and that was really the only way you had to contend with it.”
He said they also had to contend with oil fires.
“We were close enough that at night, I think we counted at least 89 separate fires burning at the same time,” he remembered. “And there were days where it completely blacked out for sun.”
They also had to contend with something happening across the Saudi Arabian border.
“My unit was in downwind from the demolition of the chemical plant in southern Iraq and we did have our chemical detectors go off,” he said.
He remembered having to paint the vehicles by hand and knowing that the gear they were given to protect them from inhaling chemicals from the pain wasn’t good enough. He said they were also given pills to combat nerve agent that, looking back, he feels may not have been the safest to be taking.
He said he remained healthy for the years following his time serving overseas, but about 10 years ago, that started to change.
“Asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis, all three are big contenders,” he said. “Thankfully, I’ve not had any serious cancers popping up or anything like that.”
Ashby’s health issues qualify as presumptive illnesses listed in the PACT Act. And since he served in the Gulf War era, he qualifies to get those benefits.
“The PACT Act is going to help a lot of us who have issues coming up recently,” he said.
“The PACT Act is perhaps the largest expansion of benefits in VA history,” said April Eilers, Spokesperson for the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks.
President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan PACT Act into law on August 10, 2022. It’s goal is to help veterans who served in certain time periods and were exposed to things like burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals during their service.
Since then, Eilers says they’ve been racing to spread the word.
“What that is, is an expansion of benefits for people who were in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and Post 911 War,” she said. “They have already earned and deserved benefits and all they have to do a show up and sign up.”
August 10, 2023 is the deadline for veterans to get back pay up to one year, but they can still sign up after that date to begin getting benefits.
The benefits also extend to survivors of veterans who have died but met the PACT Act qualifications.
“What is important to us is to make sure every veteran knows about the benefits that they’ve earned and deserved,” she said. “The last thing we want a veteran to know is ‘I didn’t know I qualified.'”
The act has a long list of presumptive diseases and illnesses that range from brain cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and lymphoma, to chronic bronchitis, emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis.
“There’s a lot of research that needs to be done in that field,” said Dr. Blake Lockwood, an oncologist with Highlands Oncology in Fayetteville.
He said a lot is still unknown about how the toxic chemicals veterans may have been exposed to impacts their bodies.
“But what we do know is, is that there were potential for chemicals that are in these burn pits to be released, such as benzene and polycyclic hydrocarbon,” he said.
There can be serious consequences when those chemicals get into our bodies after repeated exposure.
“They can get into the DNA of our cells and result in mutations within the cells that can drive cancer,” he said.
Eilers said the more veterans who take advantage of the PACT Act, the stronger message it sends to our government that this funding is necessary.
“The more people we have, the more needs we have and the more we are able to give you the services that you deserve,” she said.
Ashby is one of those veterans who is already receiving PACT Act benefits to help with his health issues and he is urging his fellow veterans to do the same.
“I ignored it for a long time, but now that I have [applied for benefits], I’m happy that I did it,” he said. “I say get in there and do it. Get it done.”
The Fayetteville VA is hosting a Vet Fest on Tuesday, August 8th to help people sign up for the PACT Act or to get connected with other services the VA offers.
“We’re really encouraging people to come and find out if they’re eligible,” said Eilers. “If they’re not eligible for the PACT Act, they could be eligible for other services and they have earned these benefits. They have served us and it’s our turn to serve them.”
The family friendly event is happening on the Fayetteville VA campus from 3-7 p.m.