MENA, Ark. – It’s been a journey more than a decade in the making: the fight to guarantee all U.S. veterans exposed to toxins receive their earned health care benefits.
It’s an uphill battle that ended with the passing of the federal PACT Act Tuesday night – with one key component coming out of an Arkansas effort.
The PACT Act made headlines for making sure burn pit exposure was a covered VA condition, a move that would protect thousands of young American veterans. But this bill also includes coverage for some Vietnam-era veterans who have been fighting for years to get the healthcare they need.
For Mena veteran Bill Rhodes, it all started with six years of letters from the VA healthcare system – notices that he had been denied from benefits.
A 2017 KARK Working 4 You investigation uncovered Rhodes and hundreds of other Vietnam veterans were exposed to herbicides while serving in Thailand – but weren’t part of a list of locations eligible for claims.
The investigation drew the attention of lawmakers, and Rhode’s work earned a call from senator John Boozeman and congressman Bruce Westerman who promised to find a solution.
Now, five years later, there’s finally change with the passing of the PACT Act in support of veterans, now headed to President Biden’s desk.
Rhode’s advocacy led to inclusion in the PACT Act that lays out new presumptive locations for Vietnam war herbicide exposure – including all of Thailand.
On the VA’s website, a notice on PACT Act changes has already been updated, including the conditions and language Rhodes fought so hard to validate.
“It’s something that I knew was the right thing,” Rhodes explained on the passing, “and so we had to keep going until we got something done. There were trying times, but you’ve got to look at the bright side and continue work.”
The act is now considered of the largest veteran’s bills in years and – along with his inclusion – Rhodes say this will make a world of difference for those who served.
“It’ll help from the numbers I see millions of veterans,” Rhodes said.
But even optimistic about its signing, Rhodes work isn’t done. He’s now turning his attention to the language used in VA coverage, explaining, “regulations, the law, does not mention or say anything about the difference between tactical and commercial herbicides,” with “tactical herbicide” a reason to deny coverage.
In addition, Rhodes says he’s also working to extend Agent Orange coverage to veterans who served in Okinawa and the Panama Canal zones, two additional groups still fighting for benefits.