A column of smoke, so black and thick he needed a flashlight to see through it.

Jeff Anderson, deployed in Kuwait at the flashpoint of the Gulf War in 1990, was surrounded by death.

He heard about it from his fellow soldiers, and he heard about it from his brother-in-law deployed in the Navy. He never saw death, but it was always around him.

“I know one (prisoner of war) who was surrendering and got shot while being searched, and the guy that was doing the searching got shot in the knee,” the 59-year-old said Saturday. Beside him at the table, a fellow veteran nodded silently. “But I did not actually see it happen. He was just in my unit.”

“But you must have read the details in reports later, right?” a reporter asked.

Anderson paused. Behind him, a group of veterans laughed and hugged each other in greeting.

“Yes,” he sighed.

When he left the Army after 10 years of service, Anderson returned to Lafayette, feeling normal.

He had suffered some injuries during the war: a break here, a cut there. At the time he didn’t think much of it. He was a soldier, and soldiers had to be tough.

Coming home

Multiple white tables are arranged in a meeting hall of American Legion Post 11, filling with other guys who were taught to be tough.

Veterans, like Anderson, are waiting to see a Veterans Affairs office representative. Some happily greet each other and socialize, but many more sit in silence, filling out paperwork, waiting for their turn.

Anderson was among 60 others who attended Post 11’s VA claims event Saturday. The first of its kind in Indiana, the session was meant to help veterans file claims with the VA’s office for various health conditions.

It comes after the Honoring our PACT Act was passed last year. The bipartisan legislation focuses on expanding health-care access to veterans exposed to burn pits. Previously, the VA denied 78% of claims by soldiers exposed to burn pits, but the new act removed requirements to prove whether burn pits were the main cause of a veteran’s condition.

“A lot of these vets either think they have all their limbs, or they’re not deserving of benefits. A lot of times they just walk away from it,” Post 11 service officer Dan Bishop said. “I didn’t get benefits until I was 50 because I wasn’t aware of the things that were available.”

Bishop served as a firefighter in the Indianapolis Fire Department for 27 years. He spent his life both in and outside of the military, ignoring the effects the service had on his body.

“I was in the United Arab Emirates, and a lot of the host nation bases use burn pits, and they burn everything,” he said, rocking in his chair. “The PACT Act is just so big because if you were over in any of these countries that had burn pits, you were affected by it, it doesn’t matter if you were next to the burning pit or if it was miles away.”

Standing beside him, Vietnam veteran Mark Thompson walked around the room, looking at at a display of pictures of veterans through the decades.

Thompson was older than most of the other men drafted to Vietnam. He worked as a defense contractor at 24, meaning he could avoid the draft as long as he held the job, but as soon as the factory he worked in finished its wartime contracts, he was drafted.

When he came back from the war, he said he saw the worst of how veterans could be treated.

“When I came home from the service, I immediately went back to my factory, because if you’re drafted in those days, the company had to take you back,” he said.

When he walked into the factory, most of it was roped off. The first thing his boss told him was that he had to hire him back for six months.

“I said, ‘What happens after that?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to let you go,’” Thompson said, leaning against the wall.

Many of the wartime factories, which needed massive numbers of employees to bolster the war effort, no longer needed their wartime workforce. Thompson was one of many who came back from the war and found themselves lost.

He said his hair was shaved when most other men had long hair, and his skin was tan when most men were white.

“First thing when I walked up the counter the guy said, ‘Oh you just got prison?’” he laughed. “‘Oh no, I’m out of the service.’ And he went, ‘Oh, you’re one of them.’”

“And I thought, ‘What does that mean?’”

Finding medical care wasn’t any easier.

He and other service members in Vietnam were told reporting medical conditions could keep them in the war for longer, at a time when all they wanted was to go home.

“There was a stigma about being hurt and once you were gone that was it,” Thompson said. “You heard nothing from the military about health issues.”

But with recent developments like the PACT Act, Thompson said he’s hopeful for future vets. He was looking for information for the first time Saturday.

Searching for hope

Randy Russell, sitting beside Anderson wearing a camo shirt and NRA hat, was there to learn his options for the first time.

The Purdue employee was stationed at Camp Lejeune, where drinking and bathing water were contaminated at concentrations up to 240 to 3,400 times permitted by safety standards.

“When I was younger, I thought, ’Wow, I’m healthy and I’m not gonna get old, I’m not gonna have any symptoms,’” he said, shaking his head. “But time flies and guess what? I’m 63 and wanting to retire in a year or so and I have all of these issues.”

He now has trouble hearing, something he blames on firing guns and hearing the booms of big aircraft.

But waiting decades to address these issues means it’s often hard to prove the cause of their health conditions.

“If I had known back then, whenever I had an ailment or a broken bone, or a concussion or whatever, I probably would’ve gone to the sick bay,” he said. “At least to have it recorded.”

Bishop said older veterans, especially, have problems with documentation. Although the PACT Act did make it easier for many veterans to file claims, certain conditions still need adequate documentation before being accepted by the VA.

Not only that, but the nature of some of these conditions means many of them don’t become issues until later in the veteran’s life. A small pain or ringing in the ear might not seem too bad in someone’s 20s, but once they’re on the verge of retirement, they can become debilitating.

For Russell, it was pride that kept him from seeking out options.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got a good job, I’ve got insurance,’” he said. “Then you forget about it for a long time.’”

He nodded to himself and fiddled with his hat. “I want to know what my options are.”

Next to him, Anderson also nodded.

“My wife and I sit at a table, we don’t really talk to anybody,” he said. “I don’t like being around when we have family gatherings.

“I have a hard time making friendships,” he said.

He has only recently considered he could have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I always felt that PTSD is more for people right there when people get killed, see people dying and stuff like that,” he said.

It wasn’t until his brother-in-law sat him down and told him he was seeing a therapist for PTSD that Anderson really began to seek help, 40 years after first serving.

“I had ignored it for years,” he said, looking down. “Until about a year and a half ago, I hadn’t even thought about it.”

Unlike many of the other veterans at the post’s event, Anderson had already been working on filing claims for some of his health conditions. Throughout the process, he had to get used to waiting.

During his time in Kuwait, Anderson said he found himself near burn pits with smoke so thick he needed a flashlight to see. He spent only seven months in the gulf, but it was enough to affect him for the rest of his life.

When he first came back to the States, he felt relatively normal, just more fatigued than usual.

“Over the years I blew off the pain, because in the Marine Corps you’re taught to ignore pain over and over,” he said. “Pain leaving the body only makes you stronger.”

Anderson has emphysema, a chronic lung disease, and for the past year has been trying to file a claim with the VA to get covered for medical expenses.

It took nearly a year for the VA to get back to him with his results. The letter informing him of it still hasn’t formally arrived.

“My claims have been a nightmare because I smoke, but for the month I was over there you could barely see the sun though the smoke,” he said, shaking his head. “They deferred that decision about a month and a half ago.”

Attention for his other conditions has been difficult as well. Anderson said it took four months to find a therapist to treat PTSD. Despite being ready to find help nearly half a year ago, he’s only just starting therapy.

He looked at Russell sitting next to him.

“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “We all want to find out our next steps.”

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