The United States has long been described as a nation of ideas. The founding fathers wrote that “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence … mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” This closing line of the Declaration of Independence underscored that the founders of this great country were willing to put their lives on the line to protect the God-given freedoms we continue to hold dear. Today, our brave service members carry on that torch, entering dangerous circumstances to secure our unalienable rights.
In return, we have a solemn responsibility to prepare those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they return home. This is a promise we have not always kept. And the impacts have often been devastating. But Democrats, under the leadership of President Joe Biden, are taking giant steps to right these wrongs and fulfill this sacred obligation.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military engaged in an aggressive chemical warfare program, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, to eliminate forest cover and destroy crops attempting to gain military advantage over North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. More than 20 million gallons of various herbicides doused roads, rivers, rice paddies, and farmland across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, causing massive environmental devastation. Several herbicides were manufactured, commonly referred to as Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent White, Agent Blue and the most widely used, Agent Orange.
When American troops began returning home after the war, many of them and their families began reporting strange symptoms and afflictions, from painful rashes to miscarriages, birth defects, cancers, and varying diseases. In 1988, Operation Ranch Hand scientist and Air Force researcher Dr. James Clary wrote to Sen. Tom Daschle that “when we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. However, none of us were overly concerned because the material was to be used on the enemy. We never considered a scenario in which our personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”
Dioxin, the dangerous byproduct produced by herbicides, was found in all herbicides used in Vietnam. It is also the byproduct of trash incineration or burn pits. Doctors raised concerns about the impacts of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan as early as 2004 but were publicly ignored by the U.S. government and military. The Department of Defense has since closed out most burn pits and plans to close out those that remain, but they have already caused significant harm to our veterans.
Last year, under the leadership of President Biden, Congress finally acted to address these harms. Aug. 10, 2023, marks one year since the Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act was signed into law — the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits in decades.
This law significantly expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. Since the PACT Act was enacted, more than 785,000 veterans have applied or submitted claims for PACT Act-related benefits, and more than 4.1 million have undergone screening for toxic substance exposure. The PACT Act also helps the VA be more responsive to veterans’ needs. It authorizes the VA to expand their workforce and construct 31 new VA facilities across the country to meet the growing demand for services and care. The outdated system of determining presumptive status for medical conditions has been modernized, and the VA will conduct research to better understand veterans’ health trends. To detect early signs of toxic exposure-related diseases, the VA has started proactively screening every enrolled veteran for poisonous exposure and will provide follow-up screenings every five years.
We must continue to honor our veterans by providing them with the care and support they need to live safe, healthy lives after they return home. One year after President Biden signed it into law, it is clear the PACT Act is delivering on this sacred commitment.
Clyburn (D-S.C.) is the House majority whip.