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Local veteran remembered as President Biden signs PACT Act into law

A battle waged by Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz in honor of local veteran Jennifer Kepner, along with many others, has culminated in the signing of the Honoring Our Pact Act.

News Channel 3's John White was in Washington D.C. as President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act on Wednesday. He talked with Ruiz on the north lawn of the White House.

"Jennifer Kepner was the ultimate fighter who til her last breath was fighting for other veterans and she became a very strong inspiration for me and it's in her honor and others honor we got this done," Ruiz said.

Jennifer and Ben Kepner with Congressman Raul Ruiz

Cathedral City resident Jennifer Kepner was an Air Force Veteran who said she developed pancreatic cancer after exposure to burn pits during her service. She first brought the issue to light in an interview with News Channel 3's John White in 2017.

Kepner died after her battle with cancer a month after her interview with John White.

Since Kepner's passing, Ruiz has helped lead the fight the charge in Congress to address the military’s use of toxic burn pits. The PACT Act includes language from the Ruiz bill, the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act.

Now the bill has passed. Ruiz celebrated signing with comedian and activist Jon Stewart.

Stewart getting wide praise from President Biden.

"We owe you big, man, we owe you big," Biden said at the signing.

Veterans groups also praised his activism.

"You often see some superstars show up here to grab attention and really don't know what they're talking about.  This is a guy that it goes much deeper than even this issue," said Tom Porter, Executive Vice President for Government Relations at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

But the day really belonged to those who fought for their country. Captain Leroy Torres has battled for 13 years, struggling with his health, losing his job, fighting for benefits.

"I first had my lung biopsied in 2010 they realized i had restrictive bronchiolitis, pre-bronchial fibrosis, so just hearing it was irreversible, permanent then facing job loss. it was such a compound loss not only losing my job because of a related illness," Torres said.

Captain Leroy Torres and his wife Rosie Torres speak with John White outside the White House

Torres was with Biden as he signed the PACT Act.

"I presented him our coins from Burn Pits 360, sir, in honor of Beau and the many affected that are no longer here, presented this coin," Torres said.

His wife, Rosie Torres, started the organization "Burn Pits 360" to fight for veterans who believed they were getting sick because of those burn pits. Veterans like Kepner, who left her this voice mail.

"I'm definitely interested in what you have to say in trying to figure out what my next step is," Kepner said.

"She really planted her flag on that platform, until my last breath i'm going to fight and that's what she did"

- rosie perez on jennifer kepner

"It was her dying wish and while she knew she was dying, she asked me to help other veterans to not go through what she went through and that is very selfless, and that his a hero in my book," Ruiz said.

PACT ACT HELP

If you are a veteran and haven’t filed a claim yet for an illness that the pact act links to toxic exposure, you can file a new claim online now. 

If you filed a claim previously and were denied but now you think your condition makes you eligible you can file a supplemental claim. The VA says that they will review your claim again. 

An important note to keep in mind, although the VA is encouraging veterans who are eligible to apply as soon as they can, the claims won't be processed until January. 

Officials say that they are waiting for funding to arrive from Congress, however, if you apply now and get approved they will likely back-date your benefits to today. 

There are also changes for Vietnam-era veterans, including more conditions that were likely caused by Agent Orange, and new locations where vets could have been exposed. 

CLICK HERE for more information on the PACT Act, as well as more on filing a disability claim or applying for VA healthcare.

If you have any additional questions about the PACT Act, you can also call the VA at 800-698-2411 (TTY: 711).

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News Channel 3's live coverage in Washington, D.C. is supported by the Coachella Valley Journalism Foundation. The organization's mission is to "promote and support excellent, sustainable community journalism in the Coachella Valley." Learn more here.

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John White

John White anchors News Channel 3 Live at 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.on KESQ-TV and CBS Local 2. Learn more about John here.

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