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Wednesday, August 10, 2022
56 Years Later, Palomares Veterans Win VA Recognition of Radiation Exposure
This morning, President Biden signed into law the PACT Act, which ensures access to disability compensation and healthcare benefits for generations of U.S. military veterans exposed to toxic fumes and radiation and who develop linked medical conditions. Among the covered veterans are those exposed to radiation in the 1966 cleanup after a refueler collided with a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear bombs above Palomares, Spain. Since 2017, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School has represented individual veterans, a nationwide class of Palomares veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) in litigation and advocacy to secure this overdue recognition of their service and sacrifice.
“Vietnam Veterans of America applauds the hard-won passage of the PACT Act, and that so many more toxic-exposed veterans of the Vietnam generation, including Palomares veterans, will finally receive the benefits they deserve,” VVA President Jack McManus said.
Senator Richard Blumenthal ’73 has been the legislative champion for Palomares veterans for years, introducing legislation on their behalf each year, and ensuring its inclusion in PACT.
“I am proud and happy beyond words that the PACT Act has finally passed Congress following years of hard work by myself and colleagues on the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee. After needless and shameful delay, the tireless advocacy of our veterans and groups like the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, made this victory possible,” Blumenthal said.
“This bill is a victory for veterans who served and sacrificed abroad and now suffer from insidious, horrific diseases caused by exposure to burn pits and toxic chemicals. This momentous bipartisan measure will bring well-deserved relief to our veterans and their families affected by toxic exposure,” Blumenthal continued. “I’m proud to have focused for years on this legislation and that it includes provisions I fought for to ensure the fairest, broadest possible coverage. Now that President Biden has signed this vital legislation into law, we must focus on delivering this critical care to our veterans as soon as possible.”
Air Force veteran Edward Feeley accompanied a clinical student team to meetings with Senate staffers this spring to advocate for Palomares on VVA’s behalf.
“This is momentous,” Feeley said. “When I walked the halls of Congress to tell the story of Palomares, I did not know whether Senators were really listening. It turns out that after all these years, most finally did. Now for the first time, Palomares veterans are on equal footing with other veterans exposed to radiation.”
Air Force Chief Master Sergeant (Ret.) Victor Skaar, celebrated the passage of the PACT Act while acknowledging the many Palomares veterans, like himself, whose medical conditions it will not cover.
“It has been 56 years since we responded to the Palomares disaster,” Skaar said. “Recognition from Congress that we were exposed to documented, dangerous levels of radiation there has been a long time coming. Our long struggle is not over, but I am especially grateful for Sen. Blumenthal’s persistence to make sure that Palomares is not forgotten.”
“The PACT Act is a landmark moment for Palomares veterans, who have been fighting for decades for the VA to acknowledge their radiation exposure and the suffering that it has caused,” said Caroline Markowitz ’23, a law student intern with the Clinic. “The PACT Act will finally extend presumptive service connection to Palomares veterans who have developed any one of 21 cancers and other illnesses long recognized by VA to be radiogenic. However, Palomares veterans who have developed other radiation-related illnesses will continue fighting for their benefits.”
The PACT Act (H.R. 3967, or the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act) establishes a presumption of service connection for Palomares veterans in Section 402.
Over two dozen VLSC law student interns have represented Palomares veteran clients, VVA, and the Connecticut State Council of VVA in litigation and advocacy since 2017. The Clinic’s work has included federal Freedom of Information Act litigation to obtain never-before released Department of Defense records describing Palomares veterans’ exposure; drafting and advocating for the legislative provision included in the final PACT Act; service as class counsel in Skaar v. McDonough, challenging the dose estimate methodology that VA has long relied on to deny Palomares veterans service-connected disability benefits; and representation in the proposed agency class action, Feeley v. McDonough, challenging the previous exclusion of Palomares from VA’s list of radiation events; and assistance to individual Palomares veterans.