FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – When they shipped Michael Scheele off to Vietnam, the 19-year-old New Haven High School graduate had never been further west than Roanoke.

But suddenly he was amidst the rotation of chaos and boredom, stuck in the 120-degree tropical heat while in constant fear wondering if each new day would be the day he died, hoping that if he did die it would be quick and painless and not the like the ones he had seen where people lost limbs or worse and were left to suffer.

And he had never heard of a herbicide called Agent Orange – but he certainly saw it used.

All the time.

“We knew they were spraying stuff, so we knew something was going on,” said Scheele about the defoliant chemical the United States military used to kill grass and jungle, making it harder for the Vietnamese to hide during the war. “At all the bases, nothing was growing.”

“When you’re in a tropical climate like that, if there is six inches of a blade of grass, the enemy is going to hide behind it,” he added.

Years later, despite an active lifestyle of hiking and walking, Scheele developed hypertension.

That’s just one of several conditions now covered by the wide-sweeping overhaul of veterans’ medical care dubbed the PACT Act, which is designed to improve access to healthcare for those who served and were exposed to toxic substances.

Signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month, the PACT Act – short for Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 – was made to address the large amount claims denied to veterans who served near burn pits.

Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of numerous types of wastes, including plastics, chemicals and human waste. Despite this, a majority of claims regarding the burn pits were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Now, many of the conditions presumably caused by burn pits will be covered.

Many veterans who served near these burn pits developed cancers and other conditions. Some died. Some came home with asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis, according to officials. Some developed long-term problems to their skin, eyes, kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.

With the new law, Veterans Affairs Northern Indiana said it will be recognizing more than 20 new presumptions of service connection to toxic exposure-related conditions and removing the burden of proof from veterans to get care and benefits from burn pit exposures.

“The majority of our veterans we have in our community could be impacted by this,” said Joe Wasson, the Veterans Services Officer for Allen County, of the new law.

Wasson’s office provides assistance to veterans and their families in preparation, development and submission of claims and applications for their earned federal and state benefits – including medical care.

Already, his office has seen an uptick in calls inquiring about what conditions might be covered by the new law. There are a “lot of moving parts” to how everything is playing out and happening, he said. Wasson encouraged anyone who is a veteran to reach out for assistance, to see if a condition they might have might be covered.

Whether it be him or someone else, Wasson said to get information on what might be covered.

“This is the largest health care change in (Veteran’s Affairs) history,” Wasson said.

And it’s not just veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill affects veterans all the way back to the 1960s, Wasson said.

Veterans like Scheele, who now have an avenue to get treated for conditions caused by other chemicals, such as Agent Orange.

“People don’t realize, they used Agent Orange everywhere,” Scheele said.

He was first diagnosed as a diabetic years after he came home from the Vietnam War, which military officials allowed covered as exposure to Agent Orange. Scheele said he was already in the system for that condition. When he developed hypertension, he figured it had to be due to his exposure to Agent Orange.

When news broke about the PACT Act and he read about hypertension now being covered, he felt relief.

“It was a huge deal,” Scheele said. “When nobody else in your family has it, you’re going, ‘Why me?’ Now you can say, ‘I know why me.’ It kind of helps with the lingering question, ‘Did I do something wrong?'”

Scheele encouraged all veterans to get in contact with either the Veterans Affairs Hospital or their Veterans Affairs officer to see what they may care they can be offered. He himself went through the process with Wasson, he said, and Wasson went over his record and found tasks he performed and places he’d been that he had completely forgotten about.

“You just put things away and hid them,” Scheele said. “You block them. That’s where Joe Wasson comes in. He knows what he’s doing.”

Scheele added that the Veterans Affairs Northern Indiana healthcare system is nothing like the VA Hospitals depicted in movies from the 1970s and 1980s. They take their time, he said. They care, he said. There are no long waits and veterans are treated with respect and promptness, Scheele said.

“The VA and military deserve credit because they are recognizing things now, and rectifying them,” Scheele said.

Both Scheele and Wasson encouraged veterans, of any war, to contact officials to see if some of their current conditions could be covered by the PACT Act, and that there are people there to help them through the process.

All they have to do, Scheele said, is go.

ALLEN COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

City County Building

1 East Main St., Room 106

Fort Wayne, IN 46802

(260) 449-7861

HOURS: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 12 p.m.; 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.