National Commander Dillard on Senate passage of PACT Act: If not now, when?

In April, American Legion National Commander Paul E. Dillard toured seven states, ranging from Alaska to Georgia, to urge Legionnaires to call for passage of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act) in the U.S. Senate before Memorial Day. (Members of the American Legion Family can contact their senators through our Legislative Action Center.)

On May 3, Dillard brought that message to Indianapolis where Legionnaires from all over the nation are gathered for the organization’s Spring Meetings. In front of local media outlets, Dillard called the PACT Act a “once in a generation piece of legislation” and reiterated the need for the Senate to both bring it to a floor vote and pass it.

“Memorial Day is the perfect time to deliver a bill for the president to sign,” Dillard said. “His son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer while in the prime of his life. He also was a veteran exposed to burn pits. We know the military is a tight-knit brotherhood and sisterhood. The fallen heroes who we honor on Memorial Day would want us to care for their sick comrades.”

Passed in the House of Representatives in March, the PACT Act would provide Priority Group 6 status for more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic contamination, including burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also expands the list of conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure, and acknowledges illnesses suffered among veterans exposed to atomic radiation and toxic water at Camp Lejeune.

“It is the most comprehensive toxic exposure bill to ever pass either chamber,” Dillard said. “It will provide health care to over 3.5 million people veterans who were exposed to contaminants during the Gulf War, the War on Terrorism, atomic testing and clean-up operations. The PACT Act also gives overdue recognition to veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. The bill will establish presumptions of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers linked to burn pits and other hazards.

“This legislation can be a legacy and remembrance for all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice due to the poisons of war.”

Dillard had advice for those who hear from their senator or congressional staffer that less-expensive legislative options exist. “I like to ask a simple question: ‘Which veterans should we leave behind?’” he said. “’Those exposed to burn pits? Those with Gulf War Illness? Atomic veterans? Camp Lejeune veterans? Those who have Stage 3 cancer? Who should we leave behind? And if we don’t pass this now, then when?’

“We hear a lot about cost from Washington these days. But what is a life worth? What do you tell a parent, spouse or a child about fiscal budgets when their loved one is gone? We have spent trillions rebuilding other countries from the ravages of war. These men and women, however, are also a cost of war and those bills must be paid.”

Dillard said the lessons learned following the Vietnam War need to be remembered when dealing with the health issues of recent generations of veterans.

“People of my generation understand the cost of exposure to dangerous substances,” he said. “The Vietnam War Memorial is as jarring as it is moving, because the names on those panels provide context to the price that was paid. But those names only symbolize the down payment. Thousands have died because of Agent Orange-related illnesses. Instead of bullets, bombs and shrapnel, they endured years of chemotherapy, radiation and painful treatments.

“This organization convinced Washington that men and women exposed to this deadly contaminant must have access to VA health care. We must do the same for the current generation of our veterans, and thousands of others, whose exposure to toxic contaminants has gone unrecognized for years, even decades.”