PACT Act Leaders Highlight MOAA’s Annual Award Recipients

PACT Act Leaders Highlight MOAA’s Annual Award Recipients
Top: MOAA award recipients Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.); Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.); Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.); Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.); Sgt. Simon Coon, USMC; Lt. Col. Al Edwards, USAF (Ret). MOAA also acknowledged the work of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). (Image by John Harman/MOAA)

(This article by Charlsy Panzino originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)


Their work ranges from expanding health care to creating a network of support and resources. Six of the eight award recipients worked tirelessly to help pass the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which will expand care and benefits to more than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxins during their service.


Thanks to the former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer being honored, the TRICARE Dental Program will offer more options for servicemembers and their families. Arizona sets an example for the nation when it comes to connecting members of the military community with resources, benefits, and support, as demonstrated by the Arizona Coalition for Military Families.


Arthur T. Marix Congressional Leadership Award

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.); Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.); Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.); Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.)


Four members of Congress led efforts on both sides of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees to help pass the toxic exposure-related PACT Act, which will impact millions of veterans. The legislation was years in the making, as veterans and their advocates fought for benefits and better health care after being exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and other toxic substances during their military service.


The PACT Act — named for Army Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died from lung cancer after serving in the National Guard near burn pits in Iraq — adds to the list of VA health conditions considered presumptive, or presumed to be caused by military service.




“If you’re signing up for the military, protecting our rights and our freedoms and our privacy and our Constitution, and it changes you by your service to this country, it is our obligation … to do everything we can do to bring you back to the way you were,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.


Tester and his staff learned more about the issue of toxic exposure in the military as advocates came to Congress to discuss its impact.


“I’ll give all the credit to the veterans service organizations out there because the drumbeat kept getting louder over a 10-year period of time,” he said.


Tester saw smoke from the burn pits himself when he visited Iraq in 2007.


“These folks have no choice,” he said. “The smoke is going in the chow halls. It’s going in the place where their sleeping bunks were. What are they supposed to do?”


[RELATED: Survivors of Vets Who Died of PACT Act Illnesses Can Soon Reapply for Benefits]


Although the use of toxic chemicals in war zones dates back more than a century, treatment options and resources weren’t always available or even fully understood, said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). The ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said he heard stories from Kansas veterans where they were not even asked about potential toxic exposures or screened for symptoms commonly associated with such exposures. For veterans who were exposed but haven’t developed any illnesses, the PACT Act gives them assurance they would be taken care of if they did get sick.


“They could get the health care and support they would need,” Moran said, adding he encourages all veterans to get screened at their local VA clinic for symptoms of toxic exposure.


Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Congress was successful in passing the PACT Act, but now it needs to be successful in implementing the legislation. Bost encourages anyone who qualifies under the PACT Act to reach out if things aren’t going the way they should.


“Reach out to us. Reach out to your own member of Congress … to inform us where things are going right or going wrong, so that we can do the oversight we need,” said Bost, who was a corporal in the Marine Corps.


[RELATED: MOAA Joins Other Veterans Groups to Review PACT Act Implementation]


The legislation is important to Bost, he said, because he’s seen the effects of toxic exposure in the military, whether while working in the Illinois state legislature or as a veteran seeing what others have gone through.


Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) also doesn’t want the new generation of veterans to go through what previous generations did.


“Vietnam veterans that I have come to know really taught me that I did not want to see history repeat itself,” said Takano, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I did not want to see the struggle that Vietnam War-era veterans went through with Agent Orange.”


Instead of making veterans fight tooth and nail to prove their exposure to toxins while serving caused their illnesses, Takano said the PACT Act removes the burden of proof from them.


Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award

Sgt. Simon Coon, USMC


Even if Marine Corps veteran Simon Coon works on Capitol Hill for another 30 years, he doesn’t think he’ll be part of something like the PACT Act ever again.


“When the PACT Act bill came to the Senate, Coon worked with committee leadership and members to address tough compromises to not only get the legislation over the finish line but also to provide a framework for the VA to implement the law,” said Col. Dan Merry, USAF (Ret), MOAA vice president of Government Relations. “The end result will improve the lives of servicemembers and veterans and their families in the years ahead.”


Coon, who served as a landing support specialist in the Marine Corps for four years, hadn’t originally planned to work on Capitol Hill. He received his college degree through the early years of the Post-9/11 GI Bill after leaving the service in 2009, and he had planned on joining the State Department after working in the private sector. However, a friend who worked on the Hill encouraged him to interview there, and Coon ended up getting an internship with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).


“I just knew immediately that I wanted to work on Capitol Hill,” Coon said. “There’s just a sense of purpose … that I really didn’t find in the private sector.”


[RELATED: MOAA President Delivers Unifying Message on Capitol Hill in Support of All Ranks, All Services]


Coon then started working with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and remained on the staff when Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) became committee chairman.


“The PACT Act was, for lack of a better term, my baby for my entire time on the committee,” Coon said, adding that the first issue he worked on after joining the committee in 2016 was related to toxic exposure.


Cost was the biggest challenge to getting the legislation passed, especially during a congressional session that was already working on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, he said.


“Getting veterans’ priorities to the top of the heap, so to speak, is difficult in the best of times,” he said. “So that was our No. 1 challenge.”


Once the PACT Act passed, Coon said it was surreal. Two experiences really brought it home to him that the legislation was actually going to pass. The first was during the final Senate vote when Coon was sitting in the Senate gallery near Tester, who received a phone call.


“I remember thinking, Why on earth would he take a phone call right now?” Coon said. “But he gets this phone call … and his first words were, ‘Good to hear from you, Mr. President.’ That was the first ‘we did it’ moment, so to speak.”


[RELATED: Mark an Iraq War Milestone by Supporting Combat-Injured Veterans]


The second, and most rewarding experience, however, happened in the past couple of months when family members and friends reached out to Coon as veterans started getting help through the PACT Act.


“I don’t always get to work on stuff that’s going to impact folks I know directly,” he said. “But it’s been really rewarding to see your work come to life in a very real way with people you know and people your loved ones know.”


Colonel Paul W. Arcari Meritorious Service Award

Lt. Col. Al Edwards, USAF (Ret)


Lt. Col. Al Edwards, USAF (Ret), used his 21 years of experience as an Air Force dentist to help pass legislation that will benefit the oral and overall health of families of active duty servicemembers.


Edwards, who retired from the Air Force in 2005, joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2013. It was as a professional staff member for the committee that he helped develop an updated construct for the TRICARE Dental Program that will give beneficiaries more choices for dental services. The program was included as a provision in the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and will begin by 2026.


The updated TRICARE Dental Program will require DoD to have anywhere from two to four insurance carriers and to provide standard as well as high-option dental plans.


“It gives beneficiaries [and] … families more options, and quite frankly, for DoD, it provides more competition,” Edwards said. “I think DoD will get better dental health plans offered to beneficiaries by having to do this.”


This provision was several years in the making, as Edwards had contributed to moving the TRICARE Retiree Dental Program over to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program, or FEDVIP, in 2018 and then tried to do the same with the TRICARE Dental Program. The legislation to move the program over passed, but DoD found it too complex to implement at the time.


The legislation was repealed, but it motivated Edwards to help craft the new provision that was passed in the FY 2023 NDAA.




Even though Edwards used some of the previous legislation to write the new provision, he dove into more research since the dental and oral health care industry changes rapidly with technological advancements.


“I researched what the industry was doing, and I tried to incorporate some new things,” he said. This includes requiring DoD to have quality outcome measures to ensure beneficiaries are getting value for what they’re paying.


“We don’t really know that unless we have data, and so what we’re requiring is we want to get quality data,” Edwards said. “If their dental health is getting better, their overall health care is probably getting better because there are lots of chronic health conditions that are related to poor dental health.”


He said there’s an effort to more fully integrate dental health with medical care.


“We want to know if dentists are making appropriate referrals to physicians when they suspect their dental patients may have chronic health conditions that are not being addressed by the health care industry or their doctors,” he said.


The provision was Edwards’ swan song, as he retired in February.


“Any time we can make an existing program better or start a new program that makes life better for that population, we try to do that,” he said.


Distinguished Service Award

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)


When Maj. Bonnie Carroll, USAFR (Ret), lost her husband, Army Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in a C-12 plane crash in 1992 along with seven other soldiers, there was no national support system for the families of fallen servicemembers. Carroll wanted to help other survivors who were experiencing the same grief, so in 1994, she founded TAPS. Since then, the organization has provided support for nearly 100,000 surviving family members.


“We are that national home for all of us to come together to mourn our losses but also to find comfort and care and resources in one organization,” said Carroll, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for her work with TAPS.


In addition to providing grief support, casework assistance, programs for children, and 24/7 helplines, TAPS was an integral partner in securing the passage of the PACT Act. Over the years, Carroll and others began noticing family members were coming to TAPS after the loss of a loved one from unusual cancers.


“We started to put things together, and it really became quite alarming,” Carroll said. It seemed exposure to military burn pits and other toxins were resulting in these cancers, and Carroll said the dots were not widely being connected.


[RELATED: VA Officials Work to Raise Awareness of Cemetery, Burial Services]


TAPS began talks with the VA and DoD and on Capitol Hill.  The organization also teamed up with John Feal, who suffered health issues from working at ground zero immediately after Sept. 11 and advocated for federal benefits for first responders and victims and their families.


“As soon as we saw they got federal benefits for … the surviving families of those who had died following their exposures on ground zero, that really opened the door to say, ‘Now let’s get this for the military,’” Carroll said.


Members of Congress became aware of veterans’ and family members’ stories as more of the community started hearing not just what veterans were facing but also what survivors were facing and how they were fighting for benefits, according to Candace Wheeler, director of government and legislative affairs for TAPS.


[REGISTER TODAY: MOAA's Legislative Action Center]


Around four years ago, incremental legislation started being introduced that focused on different parts of the issue, and then it turned into a more consolidated approach in both the House and the Senate, she said.


“We talked about not just the effect on survivors but what they saw on the lookback of what happened to their veteran and how many of them were misdiagnosed and how we needed to get out in front of them and help health care providers to understand what they were even seeing,” Wheeler said.


More people are connecting the dots now between military service and illness, she added.


The passing of the PACT Act proves the power of advocacy, according to Wheeler.


“When all of us are collectively speaking together, we can save lives and make generational change,” she said.


Distinguished Service Award

Arizona Coalition for Military Families


From serving in the Marine Corps to helping others as a therapist in the private sector, Cpl. Thomas Winkel’s experiences led him to help create the Arizona Coalition for Military Families.


The coalition — which launched in 2009 and serves more than 500,000 servicemembers, veterans, and military families in the state — provides a more coordinated approach to connect members of the military community with resources to support their physical, emotional, financial, and educational wellness to reduce stress and prevent suicide, according to Winkel.


“It’s having a unified effort across the state so that people don’t have to scratch their heads and think, Well, who do I call?” said Winkel, who’s the founder and director of the coalition.


[RELATED: Find a MOAA Chapter Near You]


The coalition works with hundreds of organizations to make sure servicemembers, veterans, and families can find the resources they need, ranging from health care to financial services.


In 2021, the coalition expanded its network even further by partnering with MOAA’s Arizona Council of Chapters so both organizations can have a far-reaching impact on Arizona’s military community through employment, financial support, mental health services, medical needs, benefits, and housing.


“It was a really great opportunity to engage with an organization that has a long, solid history of consistently supporting, in practical ways, veterans in need of assistance,” Winkel said.


One of the coalition’s goals is to make sure hardship never happens to a military family again, and Winkel said MOAA is the “tip of the spear” to addressing certain issues.


“The beauty of working with MOAA and all of its chapters here in Arizona is now we’re able to work together … and then we plug in all the other resources to ensure the folks are getting everything that they need,” he said.


[RELATED: MOAA's Crisis Relief Program]


One important way the Arizona Coalition for Military Families helps bring those in the military community together with resources is through its flagship program, Be Connected. The program is a collaboration within Arizona that allows for the governor’s office, the VA, the state’s five military bases, state agencies, and more than 450 organizations to ensure there’s no wrong door for a servicemember, veteran, or family to turn to when they need assistance, Winkel said.


In addition to connecting those in the military with resources, Be Connected’s top goal is to reduce deaths by suicide for Arizona’s servicemembers and veterans. From 2008-10, Arizona saw the highest rate of deaths by suicide in the National Guard. This prompted the coalition to create Be Resilient, the precursor to Be Connected. The rate of deaths by suicide dropped to zero for 38 months while the Be Resilient program was in effect.


Winkel said it’s a powerful experience to see someone who has been disconnected who then gets help through the coalition and realizes six different resources were used to resolve their problem and help them navigate through it.


“They have a sense of both feeling overwhelmed at what they just went through and thankful they had someone to walk alongside them,” he said, adding no single organization can do that and how it has to be massive teamwork. “It’s a beautiful thing to see everybody working together in an earnest manner.”


Other states have shown interest in creating similar programs that use local and federal resources, which Winkel says is encouraging.


Panzino is a writer based in Idaho.


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