Local vets on fight for benefits: ‘When are we going to take the burden off the veteran?’

Sen. Brown hosts Springfield talk about toxin exposure: ‘You deserve the benefits you earned.’

Area veterans and veterans service leaders on Wednesday talked with Sen. Sherrod Brown about the obstacles veterans face seeking health care and how new legislation can expand their benefits.

Brown hosted an afternoon roundtable discussion at the VFW Post 1031 in Springfield to discuss the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which was signed into law in August and takes effect this month.

The legislation gives more than 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans and veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic chemicals expanded health care benefits.

“Providing health care and benefits for veterans who suffer from toxic exposure is a cost of going to war,” said Brown. “If you were exposed to toxins while serving our country, you deserve the benefits you earned, period. No exceptions.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The measure provides every veteran with a toxic exposure screening at their Veterans Affairs (VA) appointments. The law also aims to increase education and training for VA health care and benefits personnel.

The legislation is named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, 39, a central Ohio veteran who died in 2020 from lung cancer after exposure to burn pits during a one-year deployment in Iraq in 2006.

Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission director Kim Frisco said her office is seeing an influx of claims from veterans seeking health care and inquiring about benefits.

“We’re asking them about their conditions, injuries,” she said.

The PACT Act expanded coverage by adding another 23 conditions related to burn pits and toxic-exposure related claims.

U.S. Army veteran and Greenon High School graduate David Smith said a veteran often has to jump through multiple hoops to file a claim and serve as their own advocate for needed health care after returning home from combat.

When he came home from active duty in Afghanistan in 2014, he said he learned to bring his large stack of necessary documentation whenever seeking help from the VA. Being on hold for hours to seek benefits and being bounced around to other departments is frustrating for veterans, many of whom may be living with mental health disorders post-combat.

“Sitting on hold only drives up the anxiety,” he said. “When are we going to take the burden off the veteran?”

Stigma around other services – particularly those surrounding mental health – also serves as a barrier for veterans seeking care, said Mike Vanderveen, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp and president of the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Miami Valley chapter. Others fear that seeking help in one area will deduct from the amount of help they can receive in others.

Veteran Richard Arthur, who served in Vietnam from 1967-1968, said older veterans file claims related to diabetes and hypertension. Young veterans are requesting services related to other disabilities, mobility and more.

He said he and other veterans began fighting for health care after they returned from Vietnam, and years later, the fight continues.

“The military still has problems we’re trying to sort out,” he said.