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Defense & National Security — VA to tackle benefits claims from burn pit victims

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The Department of Veterans Affairs will give priority to veterans with cancer when it begins processing benefits claims under the landmark toxic exposure law signed this summer. 

We’ll share the details of that effort and what this means for veterans seeking such benefits, plus another American was killed while fighting in Ukraine, and Kyiv prepares for blackouts across the country as Russia expected to continue missile bombardment.  

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

VA to prioritize veterans with cancer for benefits 

Veterans with cancer will get to jump to the front of the line when the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) begins processing benefits claims under the landmark toxic exposure law signed earlier this year, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced Monday.  

“I’m proud to announce for the first time today, on National Cancer Awareness Day, that we’re expediting benefits delivery for veterans with cancer conditions covered by law,” McDonough said during an appearance at the National Press Club. 

A long time coming: Beginning Jan. 1, the VA will start processing claims for benefits filed under the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.  

  • The law, signed by President Biden in early August, expands benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins during service and are suffering illnesses as a result.  
  • The legislation designates 23 diseases, half of them types of cancers, presumed to be linked to burn pits used in the post-9/11 era and other pollutants and environmental hazards from earlier wars such as the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange.   

An earlier effort: McDonough’s announcement to prioritize claims from veterans with cancer stems from Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, relaunched in February. The effort aims to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years and improve the lives of caregivers and cancer survivors.  

The program, initially launched while Biden was vice president, is personal to the commander-in-chief as his son Beau Biden died of glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, in 2015 at the age of 46. 

Other efforts: The VA is also undertaking several other initiatives ahead of its claims processing start date for the PACT Act.  

Beginning Tuesday, veterans making their first visit to VA health care facilities for any reason will undergo a new toxic exposure screening. The effort, mandated under the PACT Act, is meant to check individuals for any signs of illness and inform them of new benefits they may qualify for, with officials to conduct the screening for veterans once every five years. 

An uphill hiring battle: The VA is also in the midst of major efforts to recruit additional health and benefits personnel and keep current employees, no easy feat at a time of nationwide nursing and medical staff shortages.   

To that end, the department was given more than four months from the time the PACT Act was signed to when it will start processing benefits claims, time to hire more personnel to tackle and try to stay ahead of any backlogs and long wait times for benefits.   

  • To keep such issues at bay, the VA set a goal earlier this year to hire 2,000 new claims processors.  
  • “We have hired almost all of those 2,000,” McDonough said, but noted that training is still needed for many of those individuals. That takes a full year “before they’re performing at highest levels,” he said. 

Read the rest here 

Another American killed while fighting in Ukraine  

Another American was killed while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces against Russia’s attack on the country, NBC News reported.  

Timothy Griffin had been fighting in the International Legion of Defense — a military unit of thousands of foreign fighters helping the Ukrainians — when he was killed on the eastern front, according to NBC.  

Griffin had “taken part in the counteroffensive on the eastern front with his unit and was killed in action,” the International Legion said in a statement. 

A confirmation: The State Department later confirmed to several outlets that there was a death of a U.S. citizen in Ukraine and that it is in touch with the family of the deceased.  

“Out of respect for the family’s privacy during this difficult time, we have nothing further to add,” as reported by Washington Examiner.  

The International Legion, meanwhile, is “handling the repatriation process,” a regional spokesperson told NBC.   

Earlier deaths: Griffin’s death brings the number of Americans killed in Russia’s war to at least six, though the U.S. government has urged its citizens not to travel to Ukraine.  

Among those killed are Dane Partridge, 34, who died last month in Eastern Ukraine; a 24-year-old man from Memphis, Tenn., who was reportedly killed while fighting Russian forces in the contested Donbas region in August; and two Americans killed by Russian fire in July, identified as Luke “Skywalker” Lucyszyn and Bryan Young.  

And Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, was killed in April, followed by Stephen Zabielski in mid-May, the State Department has acknowledged.   

Read that story here

Zelensky warns of Russian strikes on infrastructure

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday said he experts Russia to continue hammering Ukraine’s infrastructure with missile strikes, vowing to mount a response to the attacks. 

“We also understand that the terrorist state is concentrating forces and means for a possible repetition of mass attacks on our infrastructure,” Zelensky said in his nightly address. “First of all, energy. In particular, for this, Russia needs Iranian missiles. We are preparing to respond.” 

Some background: As Kyiv forces make increasing gains in an autumn counteroffensive, Russia has launched a barrage of strikes across Ukraine in recent weeks, largely targeting the country’s energy infrastructure and causing blackouts and water outages. 

Blackouts: Ukraine’s Kyiv, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, Sumy, Kharkiv and Poltava regions will see blackouts on Monday from 6 a.m. until the end of the day because of the strikes, according to Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s state-owned power company. 

Zelensky in his nightly address said 4.5 million people had no electricity. 

Expecting the worst: Ukrainian officials have asked residents in recent weeks to conserve electricity use. The county has also stopped exporting electricity to Europe. 

Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is preparing for a total electricity blackout and potentially mass evacuations amid Russian bombardment. 

A focal point: Ukraine’s energy sector has been a focal point in Russia’s invasion. 

International observers have raised concerns for months over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, calling for a protection zone around the plant to avoid a nuclear disaster. 

The area remains under Russian control, but Ukrainian employees have maintained operations at Zaporizhzhia. 

Read the full story here 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

  • The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Belvoir will hold Day 2 of its “Industry Days” forum, at 8 a.m.  
  • The Wilson Center and Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies will host a virtual discussion on a new report, “Avoiding Meltdowns and Blackouts: Confidence-building in Inter-Korean Engagement on Nuclear Safety and Energy Development,” at 8 a.m.  
  • The U.S. Institute of Peace will hold a virtual talk on “Protecting Gender and Sexual Minorities During Armed Conflict,” at 1 p.m.  
  • The Middle East Institute will host a virtual conversation on “By, With, and Through Partner Special Forces in the Middle East,” at 3:30 p.m.  
  • The U.S. Institute of Peace will also host a virtual discussion on “Syria, Russia, and the War in Ukraine,” at 3:30 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

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