SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KSHV) – Veterans who may have been exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances while serving in the U.S. military can get screened Tuesday at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport.

The Veteran’s Administration began a pilot program of toxic exposure screening and found, in September, that 37.4% of veterans were concerned about toxic exposures.

Calvin Ray Glover is one of those veterans.

A Marine Corps vet and a recent transplant to Shreveport, Glover was exposed to toxins released from burn pits while on active duty during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“We actually burned stashes of ammunition,” he told KTAL. “We would find them up north, close to the Turkish border. Unfortunately, we were exposed to a lot of the toxins.”

When Glover and many of his brothers and sisters-in-arms returned home to the states, he says they either didn’t have symptoms or minimized them. But exposure to burn pits and other toxins has since been proven to cause long-term health consequences for some veterans.

That’s why Glover wants to get the word out about the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which was signed into law by President Biden on August 11.

“I like to be the encourager with all of my friends that I served with,” said Glover. “Once I heard about the PACT Act, I knew I could meet the criteria … I called someone, and they told me to get screened. I did, and I’m going through the process right now, seeing how it plays out.”

Now he hopes other veterans like him do not procrastinate or let survivor’s guilt keep them from getting screened, too.

Image courtesy of Overton Brooks VA Medical Center Public Affairs.

Not your great-grandpa’s VA

Veterans set an all-time record for filing online VA disability claims on August 12, the day after the PACT Act was signed. Mark Bologna, Director of the VA Regional Office in New Orleans, says the recent passage of the PACT Act is changing things for both the VA and for military veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances.

“I want to encourage all veterans who are kind of on the fence about coming to the VA because they’ve heard about negative experiences—don’t listen to what someone else says. Go and get your own experience,” said Glover.

Bologna, too, said a lot of people tell him they dealt with the VA years ago and it was a terrible experience.

“But that’s not the VA today,” said Bologna. “On the benefits side, we now average processing a claim in 95 days and we consider anything over 125 days a backlog.”

Just 10 years ago, the average time it took the VA to process a claim was about 375 days, according to Bologna.

“Now, some cases are done within just a day or two,” Bologna said.

Balogna says over 150,000 claims have been filed nationwide since the PACT Act was signed.

“Some veterans are going to hear those numbers and say well gosh, the VA is never going to get to these claims. But last year we processed nationally just over 1.7 million claims,” said Bologna. “We expect that number to be between 1.9 and 2 million claims this coming fiscal year. We’re equipped to handle it.”

Bologna stressed that the VBA is now paperless, and it makes a huge difference.

“It makes us a much more customer-service-oriented experience today,” he said.

OBVAMC’s Chief of Staff says they are prepared

Dr. Pat McGauly is the Chief of Staff at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport. As Chief Medical Officer, he said it’s his job to ensure veterans get the care they need.

“We’re doing our best to expand our care, which is why we’re excited about the PACT Act,” said McGauly.

McGauly, who is also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 355th MCAS, said he’s proud to work at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and that veterans are a unique group of people who look at the world differently.

“I provide medical care in the Army as well and like continuing that mission here at the VA,” said McGauly, who takes his job seriously. He says all veterans who use OBVAMC will be screened for toxic exposure.

But veterans who don’t have access to VA medical care can take part in the VA’s burn pit screening on December 13 at 11:00 a.m.

“That’s the only screening you don’t have to be enrolled at the VA to take part in, and the burn pit screening is a three-question questionnaire,” said Phillip Butterfield, Public Affairs at OBVAMC.

While veterans who are not enrolled at the VA can be screened for burn pit exposure, enrolled veterans can also be screened for other toxic exposure depending on when and where they served.

Dr. McGauly said the toxic exposure screening is where things begin.

“You start generally and then hone in on the part is that’s broken, so to speak, and figure out what strategies to use from a medical standpoint,” he said.

Bologna said when a veteran goes in for a screening, and a physician asks questions, they sometimes discover the veteran has compensable conditions and find the veteran may not have thought to apply for benefits in the past.

“Maybe (the veteran has) lived with hypertension for a long time and it’s under control with medication and lifestyle, but no one’s ever asked them if they have hypertension. Now (because of the PACT Act) it’s presumptive and they can be granted benefits. That opens the veteran up to healthcare and disability benefits, but at a certain percentage it also opens them up to vocational rehabilitation, survivor benefits,” said Bologna. “Eligibility quizzes are here because sometimes people don’t put two and two together.”

What illnesses are associated with the burn pit legislation?

Twenty-three presumptive conditions, combined with dates and areas of service, give the PACT Act the ability to be a game-changer for many American vets.

“With the presumptives, if you set foot in one of the eligible areas and you have one of these 23 disabilities, then you don’t have to prove that you got it in service,” said Bologna. “So if you were a post-9-11 veteran who stepped foot in Afghanistan and you have any of these diseases, including hypertension, you don’t have to prove you were seen in sick bay for hypertension. You only have to prove you have hypertension today, which we will take care of through an exam, and you have to prove you were in Afghanistan, which we will take care of by getting your military service records. That’s it. Those two things are needed and we can approve you for benefits.”

Presumptive conditions are very different from non-presumption where the VA requires veterans to gather the evidence they were treated for a disability while in the service.

The 23 presumptive conditions in the PACT Act include head cancer of any type, neck cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, lymphoma cancer of any type, lymphatic cancer of any type, kidney cancer, brain cancer, melanoma, granulomatous disease (disordered associated with white blood cells), and any other disease the Secretary determines is warranted based on a positive association with certain substances, chemical, or airborne hazard.

“It’s a good piece of legislation, and we’re excited it’s going to help millions of veterans and their survivors,” said Bologna.

Bologna also said the act will put money in veterans’ hands and allow them to take care of themselves and their families.

President Biden says the PACT Act is the least we can do for the countless men and women who suffered toxic exposure while serving their country.

Been denied in the past? The PACT Act is a game-changer

Bologna assured KTAL that our regional VA Medical Centers are prepared to handle the flood of claims that have begun to pour in since the passage of the PACT Act.

“This bipartisan piece of legislation had a lot of input from veteran service organizations, which means that as it was being developed, we were able to simultaneously develop a plan of action, knowing that this was coming,” he said. “We feel like we’re in a really good spot to handle what we hope is a flood of veterans coming to us.”

Veterans who may have experienced toxic exposure during military service can find the Airborne Hazards and open Burn Pit Registry online or contact Veterans Affairs and/or an accredited service organization.