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Suffolk County urges veterans harmed by toxic exposure to apply for new benefits

Tom Ronayne, Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency
J.D. Allen
Tom Ronayne of the Suffolk County Veterans Agency with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York urge veterans to apply for PACT Act benefits at the VFW in Westhampton Beach on March 3, 2023.

Suffolk County officials joined Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at the VFW in Westhampton Beach on Friday to urge local veterans harmed by toxic exposure overseas to apply for health and disability benefits.

Military personnel who were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits overseas can now apply for expanded medical and disability coverage for dozens of illnesses. Family members of veterans who died due to toxic exposure can also get compensation.

“We tend to think of being exposed to burn pits and other environmental hazards, herbicides such as Agent Orange, as being a hazard for respiratory illness and certain other things," said Tom Ronayne, head of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency. "The truth is that there are a great many other things that are resulting from these exposures.”

Ronayne said illnesses like skin conditions, respiratory diseases, cancer and mental health disorders have all been linked to toxic exposure.

The new benefits are part of the PACT Act that was signed into law last year, which expanded coverage and streamlined the application process by creating a presumption that certain diseases are related to toxic exposure.

Gillibrand was instrumental in the law's passage.

"When the PACT Act was signed into law, it created one of the most significant benefits expansions in VA history," said Gillibrand. "Today, I'm visiting VFW Post 5350 to ensure our vets here on Long Island have the information and assistance needed to take full advantage of these new healthcare and disability benefits."

She encouraged veterans to apply for benefits onlinethrough the Department of Veterans Administration. She said veterans who were previously denied should reapply.

Officials say about 3.5 million veterans could receive benefits, but only 300,000 have applied since eligibility was expanded last year.

Suffolk County is home to one of the largest veteran populations in the country.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.
A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.