At young age, BHS grad makes mark in veterans’ lives: Scholl witnesses bill signing at White House
Sheyla Scholl was invited to Washington, D.C. in August to see the president sign the PACT Act, which extends medical benefits for veterans.
BRAINERD — A mom, a cancer survivor, an Army Reservist and a nonprofit founder. At just 24, Sheyla Scholl carries many titles.
Most recently, the Brainerd High School grad was a visitor to the White House to witness the signing of a bill extending health care benefits for some veterans.
Known as the PACT Act, the bill expands health care services and benefits for veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf War and post-9/11 eras who were exposed to burn pits or other toxic substances during their service. Specifically, the bill adds 20 more conditions to the list of those presumed to have been caused by burn pits or other toxic chemicals and adds more presumptive exposure locations for Agent Orange and radiation. Essentially, more veterans will qualify for benefits.
“The expansion and acknowledgement for things like burn pits and other toxic exposures has been kind of an uphill battle,” Scholl said during a Zoom interview Tuesday, Sept. 13. “... It’s medical research, it’s funding for the medical research, it’s this, that and the other thing. It’s congressional appropriations to get the medical research. So there’s so many different bureaucratic parts in the middle that people don’t have to see behind the sidelines if they’re not up in it themselves that end up ultimately being barriers to care for people that need it.”
Scholl has seen the effect those barriers can have on veterans. Now living in San Antonio, Texas, she grew up in the lakes area and spent a lot of time at the Brainerd Veterans of Foreign Wars as a kid, as her mom works for Crow Wing County Veterans Services.
Spending time with veterans gave her a unique perspective on the health care challenges those in rural locations can face.
“The Brainerd area only has a very small satellite clinic, so the majority of these veterans are having to be transported to St. Cloud and the metro to be able to be seen for these specialty care things,” Scholl said, adding the bill could help with the expansion of smaller clinics like that in Brainerd and provide more resources for veterans with health care needs.
The bill is especially important in places like the lakes area and northern Minnesota, where the veteran population is high. According to the Housing Assistance Council, which tabulates data from the U.S. Census Bureau, veterans make up between 10.5-13% of the adult population in Crow Wing, Cass, Aitkin, Kanabec, Hubbard, Clearwater, Itasca and Koochiching counties.
“(The PACT Act) has the ability to allow the VA to buy physicians and care providers out of contracts so they can get more access to these veterans that are in need in critical areas,” Scholl said.
While Scholl grew up around the veteran community, she also has more personal ties to the military after having enlisted in the split option training program Minnesota National Guard in 2015 during her junior year of high school. She completed basic training during the summer before her senior year and continued with her National Guard training after high school.
But during her first semester in college, Scholl was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 19.
After undergoing treatment and returning to her military duties and noticing a lack of resources for others affected by cancer, Scholl teamed up with another military cancer survivor to create the nonprofit Combat Boots & Cancer in 2018. The organization provides support to servicemembers, veterans and military families facing a cancer diagnosis and educates communities on the unique challenges military families face when afflicted with cancer.
The Combat Boots & Cancer website includes a list of types of military exposures and the illnesses they could inflict, along with research on the illnesses and registries for those with specific illnesses or who served in specific wars. Visitors to the site can also find information about support groups to connect with others in similar situations.
Through her own cancer journey, Scholl started advocacy work by connecting with organizations like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She ended up testifying before state legislators against proposed changes to requirements for Medicaid, as Scholl said her family would not have been able to afford her cancer treatments if she had not qualified for Medicaid.
She also helped to pass a bill allowing cancer patients to pause student loan payments without compounding interest during and after their treatments.
And just last year, Scholl worked alongside the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to draft legislation that changes the jurisdiction of sexual assault investigations where both the victim and the accused are members of the National Guard from local police to state investigators. That legislation is known as Sheyla’s Law, named for Scholl, who is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Through all of the connections Scholl made over the past few years, she received an invitation to the White House in August to witness President Joe Biden sign the PACT Act into law.
“When I first saw the pen hit the ink, it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” she said. “It was a long time coming. People can finally breathe.”
The room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop before the signing, she said, but once it was all said and done, there was a collective sigh of relief.
While in Washington, D.C., Scholl felt the process was incredibly genuine and bipartisan and not far off from all those gathered grabbing hands and singing “Kumbaya.”
“That was one of the events that I’m glad that I was invited to … because of the shared bipartisanship,” she said. “Because cancer shouldn’t be anything other than bipartisan.”
And the trip came with one other noted benefit, too: Scholl got to meet talk show host Jon Stewart, who advocated for the bill.
“Not only am I a ridiculous fan girl, and I think he’s hilarious outside of all the advocacy that he’s done for 9/11 victims and veterans, but he’s just such a nice guy,” she said.
Now in remission but still dealing with side effects of cancer treatment, Scholl lives in San Antonio with her two young daughters and husband Jon, who is in the Air Force. She transferred from the Minnesota National Guard to the U.S. Army Reserves in 2019 and recently transitioned to the Inactive Ready Reserve after finishing her contract.
She received a business administration degree from San Antonio College in 2021 and is now pursuing a degree in business management at University of Texas at San Antonio with her sights set on law school in the future.
With the passage of the PACT Act, Scholl hopes veterans who were previously denied health care benefits will apply again and be able to receive the treatment they need before their conditions worsen.
For more information on the PACT Act, visit bit.ly/3BlDRnu .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.