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Veterans are encouraged to enroll for Pact Act benefits by Aug. 9

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The PACT Act, which Congress passed last year, has been called the largest expansion of veterans benefits in history. It covers vets made sick by burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan and toxic exposures going back to the Cold War and Vietnam. Now there's a push to get vets enrolled by August 9, including by a voice you may know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON STEWART: Please, I beg of you, get those benefits that you and your family have earned.

MARTÍNEZ: Comedian Jon Stewart lobbied for the passage of the PACT Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: For anybody exposed, any theater of war that has terrible toxic things or military bases or even just if you've been through Jersey, just driven through, just - I don't know that that would qualify you.

MARTÍNEZ: No, it doesn't. Apologies to the Garden State. It does not. But NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report about who should sign up.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Dan Nevins served in Iraq, where a bomb blast cost him both his legs.

DAN NEVINS: And I am a spokesperson and ambassador for Wounded Warrior Project, a dad and a husband.

LAWRENCE: Add to that he was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, which puzzled his doctors. He's young and healthy with no clear risk factors except having been in Iraq.

NEVINS: They're like, well, it could be some of the environmental, you know, impacts you had from your service.

LAWRENCE: Dan connected with a veteran service organization, in his case, the Wounded Warrior Project. But there are lots. And they told him he qualified for the PACT Act simply because of where he served.

NEVINS: And so now that you fall into that category of you have a pretty significant eligibility, if you will, to get some of these cancers, so, like, go get checked out. Like, what's it going to hurt? Like go get a chest X-ray, a colonoscopy.

LAWRENCE: Nevins says he's lucky because they caught it early. And he's also lucky because in the past, it might have taken years for the VA to grant that his cancer was connected to his service. The PACT Act makes it automatic for a whole list of illnesses. But he knows lots of people haven't signed up yet.

NEVINS: There's the person says, I feel fine, which I get because you're like, well, I just got to live my life, right? Leave that chapter behind me, recreate this new life where I'm not connected to the VA. I'm not in the military anymore. I don't wear a uniform. I have to focus on what's next. And that was me. Like, that was me.

LAWRENCE: Or he says there's the I gave at the office excuse.

NEVINS: It was like, well, damn, I've already paid all my dues. You know, I lost both legs. I have a traumatic brain injury. I have all these lingering issues, you know, like, I don't deserve more. And yeah, cancer doesn't discriminate.

LAWRENCE: And there's the I can't stand the VA excuse.

NEVINS: And then there are, I think, the people disappointed by the VA before, have been let down before. So then why is this going to be any different? Like, why bother?

LAWRENCE: And for them, Nevins says this time might be different. It should be easier. All veterans have to do is register an intent to file on the VA's website by August 9 to lock in a year of retroactive payments.

NEVINS: Do an intent to file before then. Do it, do it, do it. And then do the things you need to file.

LAWRENCE: The VA has already received more than 770,000 PACT Act claims. And so far, there's a 78% approval rate. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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