Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough in August 2022, speaking with reporters in front of the White House.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough in August 2022, speaking with reporters in front of the White House. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The debilitating illnesses that some veterans have suffered from toxic exposure caused by burn pits and other sources continue “long after the guns of war have silenced,” Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said Monday.

“It is our obligation to provide veterans with the benefits and care they need,” he said during an address to the National Press Club that focused on expanded health care coverage under the PACT Act and the record number of claims the VA has processed this year.

Service members and veterans represent the most deployed force in U.S. history with the military engaging in several conflicts across the world since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, McDonough said.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act, was signed into law in August 2022 and focuses on medical conditions presumed to be from a service member’s exposure to toxic substances during military service.

During McDonough’s address, he responded to a report by The New York Times that many former service members who were on the gun crews firing high-explosive shells report persistent problems with memory loss, headaches, insomnia, hallucinations and other symptoms.

He said the PACT Act extends to veterans on gun crews operating heavy artillery weapons in Iraq and Syria in 2016 who might be suffering the impacts of traumatic brain injuries.

“The VA will be reaching out to those vets who served in the field artillery units to ensure they are receiving care they need and more importantly they earned,” McDonough said.

He also said former service members who received other than honorable discharges from their service in Syria and Iraq are not automatically disqualified from coverage and benefits.

“In fact, over the last 10 years, the VA has granted benefits or care to 73% of the veterans with other than honorable discharge status who have presented to us,” McDonough said, urging veterans to re-apply if they were previously denied coverage.

His comments Monday underscored what he said is a push at the VA on improving access to care and benefits for veterans.

“The VA processed nearly 2 million claims in 2023, shattering the previous year’s record to that point — the highest ever by 16%. That meant 1.5 million vets and their families, and importantly, survivors received over $163 billion in earned benefits,” McDonough said.

The VA also has directed and sustained efforts since 2021 to hire and retain more health care workers to meet an increased demand for care since the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“This year, VA delivered more than 116 million health care appointments, exceeding last year’s number by more than 3 million appointments,” McDonough said.

Expanding the workforce also is helping the VA address a backlog in claims for VA health services, he said.

Recent digital updates make it easier to schedule appointments, get prescriptions and use telehealth services through the VA’s smartphone app, McDonough said.

When a man or woman signs up to serve in the U.S. military, “we make them a promise that if you fight for us, we will fight for you. If you take care of us, when you come home, we will take care of you,” McDonough said, noting Veterans Day is Saturday.

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Linda F. Hersey is a veterans reporter based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered the Navy and Marine Corps at Inside Washington Publishers. She also was a government reporter at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska, where she reported on the military, economy and congressional delegation.

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