ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) —Vietnam veterans honored during a ceremony commemorating 50 years since the war ended for U.S. troops hope the recently passed Pact Act will help troops from their era and others who served since then.
Bay Pines VA Medical Center hosted one of several Welcome Home events around the country to mark the day the last U.S. troops and prisoners of war left the Vietnam.
After a wreath was laid at a memorial near the Bay Pines cemetery, facility Paul Russo placed commemorative pins on several veterans, including Paul Mitsis.
“I served in Vietnam for two years, 11 months, 14 days exactly,” Mitsis said. “I remember the exact number of days. Even to this day, 50 years later.”
Mitsis’s war stories include terrifying missions when he was sent into dark, underground tunnels to root out the Vietcong.
When asked if he wondered if he would survive his tour, Mitsis offered a short answer.
“By the grace of God,” he said.
VA gears up for ‘big influx’ of claims from Pact Act that was inspired by Bay Area vet’s tragic fight
Mitsis and other veterans at the event also recalled how they were not welcomed home by some war protestors who jeered and even spit at them.
“I got into a few fights at the airport,” Mitsis said. “Damn right I did. But I won and I’m still here by the grace of God.”
Mitsis and his buddy Winfred Turner said they also went to the ceremony to get more information about the multi-billion dollar Pact Act that added 20 presumptive conditions. That means “entitlement to disability compensation may be presumed under circumstances described” in the law, according to the VA.
The Pact also expanded benefits for veterans who served in locations that were not covered before the law was passed.
Click here to learn more aout the Pact Act.
The changes did not come fast enough for Holiday veteran Lonnie Kilpatrick, whose plight helped inspire the law.
Kilpatrick was 67 when he died in 2018 after a battle with cancer that was caused by Agent Orange exposure in Guam—one of the coverage areas that was added.
After the ceremony, Mitsis walked Turner to an information booth aimed at answering questions about the multibillion dollar law.
“We have to do more. Absolutely, have to do more,” Mitsis said. “I have a brother here from Vietnam. He served in the Marine Corps.”
Turner said he has been going back and forth with the VA about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for decades.
“PTSD. And if I don’t have it, nobody’s got it,” Turner said. “I filed for it in 1997 and I still haven’t gotten it.”
Missing dentist’s patients forced to start over with braces and other treatments
PTSD was covered before the Pact Act but 8 On Your Side has also heard from veterans wondering what to do if they were denied help with issues that are now covered.
Russo said they should reapply.
“What we tell them is if you filed before, filing under [the Pact Act] does not nullify what was filed before,” Russo said. “And it may actually expedite the situation because of the 20 presumptive conditions.”
Russo said Bay Pines has screened close to 50,000 claims, with about half of those moving forward to the next stage so far.
The number of Pact Act claims across the country is closing in on 400,000 and over the next decade the expanded coverage is projected to help millions of veterans.