As veterans spent days rallying for expanded health care and disability benefits last week, protesting legislative delays outside the U.S. Capitol, Newark resident and former U.S. Army Sgt. Stephen McGuire decided to join their efforts.
The 14-year member of the U.S. Army, who now serves as veterans legislative officer at the Department of Delaware Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he felt it was his job to stand beside fellow veterans in the hope of passing the federal PACT Act, which was voted down in the U.S. Senate late last month after initially passing.
The legislation expands health care access through the Department of Veterans Affairs, adding 23 new illnesses for which veterans can file claims and directing the department to presume certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were service-related, specifically to burn pit exposure.
Burn pits were used by the U.S. military in the Middle East to dispose of tires, trash, chemicals, and medical and human waste. President Joe Biden has suggested that burn pit exposure contributed to his death of his son Beau, who died in 2015 after a battle with glioblastoma brain cancer, echoing the views of veterans and their families who attribute their health troubles to burn pit exposure.
Sgt. McGuire, who was medically discharged in 2008 after a vehicle accident in Kuwait, said he woke up on Monday morning, got in his car, and drove down to Washington, to join those who had been protesting legislative delays in the days prior. He said he was passionate about protecting fellow veterans and that in the past few years, the Veterans of Foreign Wars have prioritized addressing health concerns stemming from burn pit exposure. This led to the decision to put “boots on the ground” and stand with veterans, protesters, and even comedian Jon Stewart on the front lines.
“Even though there might be a little bit of physical pain for myself, I had to get out there and make sure that those guys have a voice. I owe it to them,” Sgt. McGuire said. “It’s my job to go down there and stand for them. I talked with many individuals, some with family members who had lost loved ones due to these burn pits. So, I just wanted to reassure them that we wouldn’t stop, and we would continue pushing until it passed.”
The PACT Act was passed on Tuesday and now awaits President Biden’s signature.
The legislation will provide care for hundreds of thousands of veterans, ranging from those exposed to burn pits to those subjected to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. Between 2007 and 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied approximately 80% of the more than 21,100 claims related to burn pit exposure.
Retired Army colonel and president of Dover’s Military Officers Association of America chapter, Eugenia “Gene” Thornton, said the legislation will help others get the compensation they deserve for serving in harm’s way.
Ms. Thornton’s husband Donovan Jagger, former Lt. colonel in the U.S. Army, passed away in 2020 after battling frontotemporal degeneration, a rare disease that has been attributed to exposure to sarin gas during Operation Desert Storm.
“Thirty years ago, Gulf War veterans like my husband and me were exposed to myriad hazardous materials and toxins, including sarin gas,” Ms. Thornton said. “My husband’s VA claim that his brain disease was caused by toxic exposure was denied. He suffered with dementia and died at age 72 without receiving VA compensation for his invisible wounds.”
Ms. Thornton said despite research showing the health consequences of toxic exposure, many of her fellow veterans are still not receiving compensation. She applauded the work of the national Military Officers Association of America chapter for working hard behind the scenes and being present every day at the U.S. Capitol, as well as Delaware’s elected officials at the federal level for their work on the PACT Act.
“[The association] and other service organizations made it easy for us to contact our congresspersons and I understand there were 10,000 contacts made from veterans on this issue, which is a lot,” Ms. Thornton said. “We’re grateful for the steadfast support of Representative (Lisa Blunt) Rochester and Senators (Tom) Carper and (Chris) Coons. This victory shows what veterans groups can do when they work together and I’m proud of the role MOAA played in getting this bill through Congress.”
Delaware Veterans Coalition President Dave Skocik, served stints in the Air Force, the Navy Reserve, and U.S. Army National Guard. He said his time in the military and years of involvement in helping veterans was a privilege because he “got to spend time with three generations of patriots.”
Mr. Skocik was subject to toxic exposure as a Vietnam War veteran, something that he said affects many of those with whom he served, adding that he will always stand with them.
“The values of duty, honor and country never change with people who serve, who went through military training no matter what branch, no matter what generation, it’s all the same. Veterans have a kinship, and we have to take care of us who served,” Mr. Skocik said.
Mr. Skocik encouraged all veterans, regardless of age, to register with the Department of Veteran Affairs. He said this will help save time in making claims for compensation related to health complications from their service. He said regardless of the generation, those who fight to protect our country should have full support and access to the care they need.
“We need to keep our military strong, and this legislation is ethical and supports those who made those sacrifices,” Mr. Skocik said.
“The last battle a veteran fights, near the end of his or her life should never be with the government.”