Six years after Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai died of pancreatic cancer, one of his signature pieces of legislation has finally become law.

President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation, known as the PACT Act, on Aug. 10 to provide benefits to millions of veterans without forcing them to prove that they suffered injury and illness after being exposed to dangerous toxins while serving in the military.

The bill covers everything from Agent Orange that was used during the Vietnam War to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hawaii Congressman Mark Takai died in 2016 before he could see his legislation to help veterans exposed to radiation passed into law. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

But it also includes a bill Takai introduced in 2015, his first year in office, to help veterans exposed to radioactive waste while cleaning up a nuclear testing site on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands get access to health care and disability compensation.

Takai’s sister, Nadine Day, attended the signing ceremony at the White House, and brought with her the yellow ilima lei her brother would often wear while working in Washington.

She said she didn’t understand why it took so long for Congress to act, but was glad that it did. She added that her brother, a veteran himself, would probably say the same thing.

“It was an honor to represent my family, but I really wish Mark was here to see it,” Day said. “This was his dream. He wanted to be here and he wanted to have an impact.”

When Takai died in 2016, his colleagues picked up where he left off.

Nadine Day, right, and her daughter, Nalani, attended a White House ceremony to celebrate passage of the PACT Act. Courtesy: Nadine Day/2022

They renamed his bill after him — the Mark Takai Atomic Veterans Healthcare Parity Act — and introduced it every year on his behalf until it was included in the PACT Act and passed into law.

New York Congresswoman Grace Meng was a key co-sponsor of Takai’s legislation.

When the PACT Act passed, she issued a statement lauding its inclusion in the bill and honoring the late Hawaii congressman.

“Rep. Takai knew the importance of taking care of our veterans when they return home, especially those who served our nation with honor and distinction when they participated in the cleanup of Enewetak Atoll that exposed them to dangerous toxins and radiation,” Meng said.

“We have a moral obligation to our toxic-exposed veterans,” she said.

The PACT Act is considered one of the largest expansions of Veterans Affairs benefits in nearly three decades and is expected to cost $280 billion over the next 10 years.

Roberto Garza, 73, is a Hawaii veteran who has fought for nearly two decades to gain access to the benefits.

Garza, who joined the Navy in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, says he was exposed to Agent Orange when he was assigned to the USS Carpenter based at Pearl Harbor that was deployed in the Pacific and made supply stops in Guam.

In this undated photo Roberto Garza of Hilo receives an award from his commanding officer as his shipmates look on. Photo: Garza Family
In this undated photo Roberto Garza of Hilo receives an award from his commanding officer as his shipmates look on. Courtesy: Garza Family

While the U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange in Vietnam to defoliate enemy hiding places and local food crops, it also used the herbicide to beat back tropical growth around airfields and installations on Guam and other locales.

“The whole island was saturated,” said Garza, who worked as an E3 fireman in the destroyer’s boiler room.

Garza spent only two years in the service before settling on the Big Island where he worked for a local sugar plantation.

About 10 years after he was discharged, he said, he started to develop a host of mysterious ailments.

The feeling in his hands and feet began to disappear. If he wasn’t careful, he’d fall over as he walked or place his hand on the coils of his stovetop without noticing that his flesh was starting to burn.

Eventually, he said, he was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes even though his family has no history of the disease. The numbness in his extremities was caused by peripheral neuropathy.

Roberto Garza of Hilo stands in his kitchen with his container of medicine. The U.S. Navy Veteran takes six prescriptions and insulin daily. Photo: Tim Wright
Roberto Garza takes six prescription pills daily in addition to insulin for diabetes that he blames on Agent Orange. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2022

“The doctor I had at the time asked, ‘What happened to you?’” Garza said. “I had no idea. The only thing I could think of was Agent Orange.”

Despite his illnesses — both of which can be caused by exposure to Agent Orange — Garza said the VA refused to provide him with benefits.

Because he did not set foot in Vietnam he was not considered presumptively eligible for benefits the same as other veterans experiencing the same maladies.

Garza, however, was not alone. Thousands of Vietnam veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and American Samoa — all places where Agent Orange was sprayed and stored — faced similar struggles getting access to benefits.

The PACT Act will change all that. Each of those countries is now on the list of presumed exposure sites. It also includes Guam or the territorial waters off of Guam from Jan. 9, 1962 to July 30, 1980.

“I feel great that they finally acknowledged us, but why wait so long,” Garza said. “Why say no all this time? They knew it was there.”

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