Thousands of local veterans benefiting from PACT Act
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Memorial Day is a time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, but there are hundreds of thousands of service members who fought overseas, made it home, but are now sick from what they were exposed to on the battlefield.
News10NBC has been investigating toxic burn pits and the impacts they are having on local veterans for more than a year now. The PACT Act was signed into law in September of 2022 in an effort to help many of those veterans secure the healthcare and benefits they need.
Burn pits are what the government used to get rid of trash at overseas bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anything and everything was thrown in and then lit on fire.
In the summer of 2022, News10NBC shared the story of Michael Hemmerick, a local man who served two tours in Afghanistan as a heavy wheeled mechanic in the Army National Guard. He was in charge of the motor pool on base and told his wife that whenever something was unfixable, it went into the burn pits where it was set on fire with jet fuel and left to burn, sometimes for days at a time.
“They put everything in the burn pits, if they didn’t want you to know about it they put it in the burn pits,” says Melissa Hemmerick. Michael made it home from war but died a few years later from throat cancer. His doctors were convinced the cancer was caused by his exposure to the toxins from the burn pits, but his family never got a dime of service-related death benefits.
“I would have given up and that’s what they want you to do, they want you to give up so that they don’t have another one to take care of,” Melissa said. But she didn’t give up and now, less than a year later, things are very different.
The PACT Act was recently signed into law. It extends healthcare and disability benefits to veterans diagnosed with any one of more than 20 different illnesses under the presumption that the toxic exposure during their time in service, caused the illness.
“It’s a flood of veterans that have come in, hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands at this point,” says Nick Stefanovic, the Director of Monroe County Veteran Services. Veterans exposed to either burn pits in Iraq or Afghanistan or agent orange in Vietnam, “They’ve been waiting for years and years and being denied, some with really terrible cancers for this,” Stefanovic adds.
But now, the answer from the VA has changed. Healthcare and monthly disability payments are being approved daily and for families like the Hemmerick’s, service-related death benefits, “She’s able to take care of her two children, she got a very significant retroactive check and her life is okay now. It went from being in shambles and uncertainty and not knowing where she was going to go to her being okay and that’s the greatest type of reward we can get from this work,” Stefanovic says.