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Emory Law News Center


PACT Act benefits Georgia veterans exposed to burn pits, toxins

Lisa Ashmore |

A 59-year-old Air Force officer—a nonsmoker with no family history of cancer—dies of esophageal cancer 17 years after he returns from Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base. After 9/11, the former Soviet base was used by the United States for missions into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite K2’s notorious burn pit and its Day-Glo “Skittles” ponds, the Veterans Administration denied the veteran’s claim for disability benefits in 2016.

In 2020, the veteran’s wife called Emory Law’s Volunteer Clinic for Veterans, which refiled the claim. It included letters from his physicians and scientific studies to support the connection between his cancer and burn pit exposure, but it was again denied.

This summer, after The PACT Act* became law on Aug. 10, 2022, the clinic resubmitted the claim. Senior Staff Attorney Carlissa Carson 08L expects a different outcome—this time she believes the veteran’s wife will receive spousal benefits based on her husband’s illness and premature death. The VA has described the PACT Act as perhaps the largest health care and benefit expansion in its history.

“We are so happy the Act was finally signed into law,” Carson said. “It gives servicemembers presumptive service-connection for a long list of conditions such as brain cancer, GI tract cancer, COPD, and other life-threatening illnesses.” Servicemembers now don’t have to prove those conditions were caused by burn pit exposure—the law presumes any condition on the list is connected to toxic exposure, which creates easier access to VA disability benefits.

Georgia ranks No. 9 in the country in veteran population; more than 700,000 veterans live here, and Fort Benning in Columbus is the fifth largest military base in the world. Carson says more than three million US servicemembers were exposed to toxic burn pits while deployed to countries including Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. 

“A growing number of them have developed severe health consequences,” she said. “The VA should expect tens of thousands of new claims.”

Before the PACT Act passed, the VA denied about 70 percent of disability claims based on burn pit exposure, Carson said. Since its passage, the VA has added more than 20 burn pit and toxic exposure presumptive conditions, which also expands benefits for Gulf War era and post-9/11 veterans.

“The PACT Act also opens the door for more claims by Vietnam War veterans,” she said. “If you served in the Vietnam War and you have high blood pressure or MGUS, the VA now presumes those conditions were caused by your Agent Orange exposure.” Also, specific events are now recognized to carry health liabilities. “If you helped with the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll or cleanup of the Air Force B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons off the coast of Palomares, Spain, the VA now presumes you were exposed to radiation,” Carson added.

The clinic was founded in 2013 and currently more than 50 law students and over 10 volunteer attorneys and paralegals are at work on claims and legal help. Since Carson joined in January 2020, the clinic has secured more than $4 million in backdated and future VA disability benefits and has assisted more than 100 veterans and/or their families. Volunteers work with low-income veterans on issues that include disability claims, discharge upgrades, and estate planning.

“The work we’re doing has a direct positive benefit on veteran’s lives,” Carson said. She is a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force (Air National Guard) and previously served in the US Army Reserve.

*The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act

Read more about the PACT Act and disability. 

Read Carson’s recently published article on burn pits in the Louisiana Law Review.

Learn about Emory Law’s Volunteer Clinic for Veterans (video)

Support the clinic.