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Veterans are encouraged to enroll for PACT Act benefits by Aug. 9

Dan Nevis at a Wounded Warrior Program 5k run in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2019.
Wounded Warrior Project
Dan Nevis at a Wounded Warrior Program 5k run in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2019.

Updated August 2, 2023 at 2:08 PM ET

There are lots of reasons that veterans put off getting screened for toxic exposures. Dan Nevins can relate.

"Damn, I've already paid all my dues. I lost both legs. I have a traumatic brain injury. I have all these lingering issues ... I don't deserve more!" says Nevins, who lost both his legs to a bomb blast in Iraq. But he's urging vets to go to the VAanyhow.

"Yeah, cancer doesn't discriminate," he says.

A cancer diagnosis surprised Nevins and his doctor two years ago. He's young and healthy with no clear risk factors, except having been in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of troops were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits — open fields where the military incinerated all manner of waste.

"They're like, 'Well, it could be some of the "environmental impacts" you had from your service,' " he says.

Nevis says he's lucky, because they caught it early. And he's also lucky because in the past, it might have taken years for the VA to grant that his cancer was connected to his service, the key to getting VA disability benefits.

The PACT Act, which Congress passed last year, automatically grants "service connection" for a whole list of illnesses, from vets made sick by burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan to other toxic exposures going back to the Cold War and Vietnam. VA officials have called it the largest expansion of veterans benefits in history, and the department recently announced it is reviewing whether to add illnesses like acute leukemia, chronic leukemia and multiple myeloma. It also plans to expand breast cancer screenings and mammograms for veterans.

We urge every veteran to file a claim.

The VA has received more than 770,000 PACT Act claims to date — and so far has approved 78% of them. But that's still a small fraction of an estimated 5 million veterans who could apply for PACT Act benefits, and a recent AARP report found nearly two-thirds of veterans don't know they're eligible.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough has been attending events nationwide to promote enrollment.

"We urge every veteran to file a claim, " McDonough said at a recent press conference.

The result is the highest inventory of claims VA has ever had, said McDonough, who hopes it's a chance for VA to win back veterans who may have had bad experiences in the past

"The way we will ultimately be most successful is when veterans are telling each other that the process was workable [and] they felt respected in the process," he said.

Go get checked out. Like, what's it gonna hurt? Go get a chest X-ray, a colonoscopy. Do it, do it, do it!

Dan Nevins says he can relate to all the excuses vets use to put off getting screened. There's the vet who just wants to start a new chapter in life without the VA, the vet who figures he's feeling healthy right now so why bother.

"And that was me," he says.

Nevins got help enrolling from the Wounded Warrior Project, a veterans service organization. He's now an ambassador for WWP, urging any other vets who served where he did to get checked out and enroll by August 9th – that's the deadline to access a year of retroactive benefits. Vets don't even need to complete the application by then, they only need to register an "intent to file" on the VA's website.

"Go get checked out. Like, what's it gonna hurt? Go get a chest X-ray, a colonoscopy," he said, "Do it, do it, do it!"

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering national security, climate and veterans' issues nationwide. Previously he was NPR's Bureau Chief in Kabul and Baghdad.