As the one-year anniversary of the historic PACT Act signing approaches, the Department of Veterans Affairs — with support from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS — is ramping up an already aggressive campaign to deliver the legislation’s promised benefits and increased presumptions to veterans who were exposed to toxins while serving and family members who have lost a loved one to a service-connected illness. The urgency to file is the fast-approaching Aug. 9 deadline. Veterans and survivors who wish to qualify for backdated benefits must submit their claims or intent to file by Aug. 9, 2023.
It is important to note that there is no deadline to apply for benefits under PACT Act in general, but the financial impact of these retroactive benefits could be significant. The VA and TAPS encourage veterans, caregivers, and illness-loss survivors to submit their applications as soon as possible to maximize their benefits.
TAPS is specifically working on outreach to those who lost a family member to service-connected illness. “Both TAPS and our partners at the VA understand that filing claims is not just the act of electronically filing paperwork,” states Bonnie Carroll, TAPS President. “For surviving family members, choosing to revisit the circumstances of loss is a difficult decision, and navigating government forms can be intimidating for those who are grieving. TAPS is standing ready to guide illness-loss survivors through the VA’s streamlined process.”
After learning about the PACT Act and being told she might be eligible for benefits, surviving spouse, Kerrie Wieners, expected a fight, but after years of caretaking, the tragic loss of her husband, and years of navigating grief, she admitted, “I didn’t have a fight left in me.”
Kerrie’s late husband, Robert F. Wieners, Jr., a U.S. Army Reserve veteran, died in April of 2011 after developing lung cancer caused by prolonged exposure to burn pits while deployed to Iraq shortly after 9/11. Kerrie recalls the many satellite phone calls she got from Bob while he was in Iraq. In addition to his words of love and reassurance — and even humor — in those phone calls, Kerrie remembers, even then, his talk of burn pits stuck out to her.
Bob came home to her and their two children after that deployment, but Kerrie noticed a change. “He was hurt.” But it wasn’t until he was recovering after neck and back surgery that they would discover how hurt Bob really was. His physical therapist discovered blood clots in both of Bob’s legs. He instructed Bob to see his primary care doctor and not to leave until he knew what was wrong.
In an attempt to find the cause of the blood clots, Bob’s medical team — seemingly by accident — discovered a brain bleed. Further testing revealed a baseball-sized mass in his chest. The eventual diagnosis was stage 4 lung cancer. Kerrie’s immediate question was, “How long does he have?” and the answer was six months.
Kerrie shares that it took four six-month life expectancy estimates before Bob eventually lost his battle with cancer — a testament to the fight he had in him.
Years later, Kerrie wondered if she could fight like that. After a previous denial for VA benefits, could she try again? Would she be successful, and would it be worth it? Not knowing who to turn to for help, she looked to TAPS. A process that she thought would take years — and even then held no promise of benefits at the finish line — was much shorter. Within minutes, a TAPS caseworker assured her that if Bob’s death certificate cited lung cancer, she would get PACT Act benefits. Her forms were drawn up, she signed electronically, and she was referred to a local contact for in-person support.
Just weeks later, Kerrie received a check from the Department of the Treasury — a check she thought would never come. After the shock wore off, she faced another emotion: guilt.
She asked herself, “Do I deserve this? Am I just being greedy?” But, her message to any illness-loss survivor hesitant to file a PACT Act claim is this: The barriers between survivors and benefits aren’t always visible. The VA has done tremendous work to right a complicated process and expand benefits that were once only available to a narrow population of veterans. But legislation isn’t always enough. What might be holding a survivor back from filing are the things they carry — the perceived intimidation of the process, the desire not to reopen emotional wounds, and the guilt rooted in collecting benefits they deserve, but may not think they need.
Illness-loss survivors do not have to face the process alone. Kerrie shares simply, “If I didn’t have help, I wouldn’t have benefits.” TAPS was that help for Kerrie, and — Ms. Carroll shares — “TAPS is standing by to support all illness-loss survivors in pursuit of retroactive PACT Act benefits through the Aug. 9 deadline, and, as we have been for nearly 30 years, we will remain a constant source of support and resources for all those grieving the death of a military or veteran loved one.”
Continue reading about Kerrie Wieners’ experience and the veteran and survivor advocacy work of Jon Stewart and TAPS.