NEWPORT — Mark Murphy remembers once asking his supervisor at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan what was burning when he noticed a cloud of smoke nearby.
Murphy, 38, who did two deployments with the Air Force between 2006 and 2010, said the supervisor explained to him, “Oh, they’re burning things.”
Trash on the base was being doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Murphy, of Newport, said he remembers thinking of the combustion pit, which was close to where he and others were working, “doesn’t look safe,” but shifted his attention to the electronic warfare tasks that were his duty.
“You do what you have to do and you get the job done,” he said. “Many of the conditions on the bases were not very sanitary. They could have been much better.”
Murphy, who was also deployed to Iraq, was discharged in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury and tearing his right shoulder during his second deployment. He is now married with four children and owns a construction company.
Since returning to civilian life, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sarcoidosis, a rare condition that causes small patches of inflamed tissue, called granulomas, to develop on organs. Murphy’s doctors at the US Department of Veterans Affairs in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston found granulomas in his lungs, stomach, intestines and heart.
“It was quite extensive,” he said. “At that time they told me there was no cure. (There was) nothing they could do to treat it.”
Sarcoidosis, a multi-system inflammatory disease that can lead to organ damage, is among the list of more than 20 burn risk conditions and other suspected toxic exposure conditions included in Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act of 2022. The law is named for Robinson, who following his deployments to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard developed an autoimmune disorder and lung cancer, both of which are associated with exposure to burn pit. He died in 2020 at the age of 39.
As a result of that legislation, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August, Murphy notified the VA that he plans to apply for additional benefits.
Up to several million veterans nationwide, including 9,000 veterans in the White River Junction VA Medical Center catchment area, may qualify for additional benefits under the law, White River Junction business office chief Gregory Hartford told viewers. GOES. of a webinar the VA argued about the PACT Act last month. White River Junction VA currently serves about 30,000 veterans, he said.
Hartford, a Navy combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, described the PACT Act as “massive legislation” that is “expected to be one of the largest in VA history.”
The law broadens and extends eligibility for VA health care for veterans who have been exposed to toxic materials and for veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf War, and post-9/11 eras.
In addition to sarcoidosis, the more than 20 new presumptive conditions for Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans also include asthma diagnosed after service; chronic bronchitis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; chronic rhinitis and sinusitis; emphysema; and various types of cancer, including those of the brain, gastrointestinal system, head and neck, kidneys, lymphatic system, pancreas, reproductive and respiratory systems, as well as glioblastoma, lymphoma and melanoma, among other conditions.
For Vietnam veterans and other veterans exposed to tactical herbicides like Agent Orange, the law adds high blood pressure and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance to the list of presumed conditions. When a condition is presumptive, it means the veteran does not have to prove to the VA that the condition was service-connected; it’s supposed to be like that.
The PACT Act also adds more suspected exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation, and requires the VA to provide toxic exposure testing to all veterans enrolled in VA health care.
Under the law, there is a special health care enrollment period for veterans who served in a combat theater after the Persian Gulf War or in combat against a hostile force after November 11, 1998, and were discharged. between September 11, 2001 and October 1, 2013. Enrollment is free and medical care is free for up to 10 years for any condition connected to your service.
As of the law’s enactment, Vietnam-era veterans who served in a variety of places for different lengths of time are also now eligible to enroll in VA health care. Some Vietnam veterans were previously denied based on where they served.
The law also requires the VA, using a phased approach, to provide hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care for any illness to veterans who participated in “toxic exposure risk activity” while on active duty; as well as for veterans who were assigned to certain locations for certain periods of time; and those who were deployed in support of specific operations.
Veterans can apply for expanded benefits by visiting the White River Junction VA Medical Center or clinic in Littleton, NH, VA, or by mailing in an application. More information is online at va.gov/PACT.
In addition to the veterans themselves, survivors of veterans may also qualify for additional benefits under the law.
“I am very proud of this bill,” Hartford said. “… I truly believe in my heart that this will positively affect a lot of veterans.”
Don Hayes, director of the Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project at Vermont Law and Graduate School in South Royalton, was among the more than 50 people who logged into the webinar.
In a subsequent phone interview, Hayes said his clinic, which is funded by grants, has yet to see an increase in veterans seeking assistance, but he hopes it will once veterans apply for additional benefits and some are denied. Her office primarily helps with appeals, so Hayes said she expects to see an increase in requests for assistance in the spring.
It is also helping some veterans with ongoing appeals, who may now be able to file claims under the PACT Act. Now they will have to decide whether to file new claims or continue with their appeals.
“One of the complaints you hear quite often (about) the VA is (that it’s) difficult to work with,” Hayes said. “Some veterans are frustrated by the process and will give up.”
While the PACT Act may not be perfect, it “greatly recognizes the illnesses and injuries caused by some of these toxic exposures,” he said.
By making more conditions presumed to be service-connected, the PACT Act aims to simplify the process for veterans, Hayes said. “It relieves the veteran of the burden of having to show the nexus between disability and service,” Hayes said.
Still, “the burden in most cases will fall on the veteran,” he said. Once a veteran is enrolled, the VA has a duty to help, but the VA does not make claims on behalf of veterans.
Cathleen Fountain, a 66-year-old Marine veteran, resident of Dalton, NH, and mother of Murphy, was one of those who registered for the October webinar.
She asked if her son (Murphy), who is already enrolled in VA health care, “will have to do anything else if he’s already getting treatment. I want to make sure that he gets everything that he needs.”
Marcos Lugo, supervisory veterans service representative for the VA’s White River Junction Regional Office, said yes. While Murphy may already be receiving medical care, making his condition service-connected will help cover his costs and affect his copays, Lugo said.
In a phone interview after the webinar, Fountain said he tries to help Murphy by “just paying attention and letting him know what’s going on. She has a little bit of a memory problem because of some of the things that happened to her.”
Like Murphy, Claremont resident James England, a 39-year-old Marine veteran who deployed to Iraq twice between 2004 and 2006, also recalls being exposed to combustion pits. England now receives care through the VA for service-connected anxiety and PTSD.
England said he was part of the country’s volunteer military force and as such had signed up to take risks. Still, he said, “it wasn’t your average Marine who wanted to go to Iraq. The government said: ‘We are going to do this.’ ”
If the government commits American lives and resources to a conflict, he said, “it should be able to pay the price at the other end.”
England said he sees the PACT Act as a step forward for veterans who develop lung cancer or other conditions.
“At least it’s a way for them to get treatment,” said England, who volunteers at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 808 in Claremont. “Unlike before, where the government said, ‘That’s the cost of doing business.’ ”
But, he said the act is not preventative: “Until you don’t have lung cancer, you have no way of knowing.”
England said he sees disposing of trash in the burn pits as a “by-product of necessity,” but as time went on during his service, he realized that the burn pits moved away from the center of the camp. Meanwhile, Murphy said he believes the military should have had a better plan for how to handle garbage in times of war.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” Murphy said. “The fact that the command was allowed to do these things in these countries and not have a game plan in place.”
England said he is on a registry of burn holes, which collects information on people who have been exposed to understand the health consequences of exposures. Since he and other veterans have been on the list for a while, it was established in 2014, England said he’s not sure what difference the PACT Act will make for them.
“I don’t think it’s potentially going to have a huge impact on the average veteran,” England said, at least in the short term. He predicted that it will take a couple of decades to know the full consequences of the burns on veterans’ health as more of them develop symptoms and conditions associated with exposure.
For his part, Murphy said he would like to see the VA reach out to veterans who now qualify for additional benefits based on their time and place of service. He said the VA should contact veterans with symptoms or conditions that might fall under the PACT Act.
Now that Murphy has submitted his intent to apply to the VA, he must complete the claim form. He said he is curious to see how long it takes to work his way through the red tape.
“The last time I made a disability (claim) it took me almost two years,” he said.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.