It is one thing to appreciate those in the military who serve our country. It is another to provide them the support and care they have long needed and have earned. This appears to be a point upon which our political leaders in Washington agree. As reported by My Military Benefits and others, following a year of intense negotiations, on Wednesday, May 18, members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee came to an agreement on the PACT Act of 2022. Formally known as The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, if passed, it will deliver health care and benefits to more than 3 million military veterans exposed to toxins while in service to their country.
Heath Robinson was a sergeant with the Ohio National Guard. When deployed to Kosovo and Iraq, he was exposed to open air burn pits, exposure that contributed to his death in 2020 from a rare form of lung cancer.
As reported by NBC News, “Open-air burn pits were common at U.S. military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dangerous materials, from electronics and vehicles to human waste, were regularly doused in jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.”
According to My Military Benefits reporter Robert Haynes, a joint statement by Sens. Jerry Moran and Jon Tester (Tester is the committee’s chairman) refers to the proposed bill as “the most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans in this country’s history.” The statement goes on to say, “Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”
Among the benefits to be provided are expansion of access to VA health care for toxic-exposed veterans, as well as an extension to the period of health care enhanced eligibility for post-9/11 combat veterans. The legislation would also make it easier for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to get treatment. In addition, it will augment toxic exposure-related education and training for VA health care providers and benefits personnel, as well as establish 31 new VA health care facilities in 19 states.
As important as this moment is, we should not lose sight of the fact that the PACT Act has not passed yet. This legislation needs the vote of the full Senate, a final review by the House of Representatives and presidential signing. If all goes well, those following the bill are hopeful it will become law by early summer.
This important legislation also leads us to another crucial reminder of the cost of combat. As a report by the Wall Street Journal’s Renee Onque states, war and disease “go hand and hand.” History shows that dating back to ancient times to the present, disease has often killed more soldiers than battle. Writes Onque, nearly two-thirds of soldiers who died in the Civil War fell to disease, not bullets or cannon fire. World War I was intertwined with the spread of a global pandemic. According to the official U.S. Army website, World War I claimed 20 million lives by its end. The pandemic known as the Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed at least 50 million. Such threats of conflict joined by disease clearly exist today.
As Fox News recently pointed out, Ukraine war conditions have now “become a breeding ground for infectious disease outbreaks.”
“As Ukrainians flee their country from Russia’s military onslaught, they face the prospect of the invisible enemy — bacteria and viruses that capitalize on the overcrowded conditions brought on by the bloody invasion,” says reporter Shiv Sudhakar.
Says Maire Connolly, a professor at the National University of Ireland, Galway who studies the relationship between war and disease, “As we’ve seen in wars over the years, viruses and bacteria are happy to exploit those situations where human beings are put under pressure.” The report goes on to describe the plight of refugees forced to flee to safety “only to end up in unsanitary and often unsafe conditions that are the perfect environments for an infectious disease outbreak … not only for COVID-19, but also the ongoing Ukraine polio outbreak, which international experts have been trying to end for months.”
Also in this report, which originally ran in the Washington Post, “Compounding the situation, experts warn the conflict may have also disturbed sensitive radioactive waste stored at the Chernobyl nuclear plant that could ignite another environmental disaster.” Nations, organizations and individuals around the world have rallied in providing support and assistance to this besieged country. People wishing to donate can visit www.ukraine.who.foundation for more information. Much of this support is aimed at confronting the “less visible war,” what WebMD refers to as “the bacteria and viruses that are gathering their forces together.” “They, too, will infect parts of the population and may spread throughout Europe,” according to WebMD writer Judy Stone.
Michael Spirtas is an associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the nonprofit RAND Corporation. Stephen Webber is a defense analyst at RAND. In a blog post in January, they addressed the threat posed to military readiness by the enemy not seen — disease and its spread. “Mobilizing for great power conflict is hard enough, but with a new variant of COVID-19 running rampant, the U.S. military would have its hands full if it had to fight tonight,” they write. While this threat has eased since then, it has not gone away.
“The U.S. government is actively reviewing its efforts to counter biological attacks and the Department of Defense is taking steps that could allow it to perform day-to-day operations during a pandemic, but it might not be preparing adequately for a future large-scale operation during a more-transmissible and lethal pandemic,” they add. The Department of Defense “could do more to prepare,” they conclude.