Members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) who say they were impacted by exposure to burn pits while serving, stand to be acknowledged at a House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee hearing in June 2018. (AP Photo/FILE/Jacquelyn Martin)
By Mikhael Thompson | UConn Journalism
December 8, 2022
Brandon Soto, a freshman biology major at the University of Connecticut who joined the Navy in 2016, was exposed to a burn pit while deployed in the Middle East.
“We would wake up daily to what would look like fog outside only to be smog,” Soto said. “The first few days deployed, I would bleed out of my mouth and develop terrible heartburn, migraines, and intense nausea during training exercises. I would stay indoors as much as possible, I’m happy it was COVID season because having a mask when walking outside became very beneficial.”
On Aug. 2, 2022, Congress passed the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act (PACT Act) which expands Veterans Affairs health care and benefits for “Veterans that have been exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The bill, which also expands VA health care eligibility to post‑9/11 combat veterans and establishes a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service related to toxic exposure, was announced in bi-partisan agreement by Senate Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D) and Republican Ranking Member Jerry Moran on May 18.
“For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform,” the senators said in a released statement. “Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve… Together, we will continue working until Congress delivers on its commitment to passing long-lasting solutions and comprehensive reforms for those who served our country.”
Shane Forno, a 7th semester economics major at the University of Connecticut, he served in Kenya in 2020 as a part of the National Guard. He said that it was a forward operating base that had just one burn pit which they used to dispose of garbage because they didn’t have sanitation services.
“There are no garbage trucks or anything like that, so they don’t let it pile up. They usually just have like a furnace or a big pit where they will just throw stuff in there with diesel fuel and that’s pretty much how it works,” Forno said.
He said that one reason for this is logistics. Small forward operating bases don’t have much in the way of options when it comes to disposing waste. They would have to pick up that garbage and transport it somewhere else, something Forno said doesn’t come easy.
“That adds to cost and any more vehicles and more planes and. Stuff like that. I mean, I guess they could contract out, they could always contract out to like small companies in the area to deal with garbage, but it depends where you are,” Forno said. “They definitely can’t do that in a real combat zone. Like, if this was 2007 Afghanistan, you know, there is no Afghan garbage company. Right? So, part of it is situational…Sometimes your hands are tied.”
Forno said he hasn’t had any physical symptoms so far, but his roommate, who was in his unit, had claimed burn pit exposure due to respiratory problems.
“He got out a couple months ago,” Forno said. “And he claimed burn pit exposure with the VA because he has been having like respiratory issues. He hasn’t been coughing up blood to that extreme, but, um, he can’t run nearly as far without his lungs hurting. So, there’s something going on. He doesn’t smoke at all so I’m sure it just all has to do with like the amount of exposure you have if you like, live next to a burn pit or you were the guy that was throwing everything in, breathing it in every day creates a substantially higher risk of exposure.”
Earlier this month the Department of Veterans Affairs said that they would be implementing a new toxic exposure screening as a key part of the PACT Act and would ask veterans about specific exposures while serving in the armed forces.
“These screenings are an important step toward making sure that all toxic exposed Veterans get the care and benefits they deserve,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a press release by the department. “At the end of the day, these screenings will improve health outcomes for Veterans—and there’s nothing more important than that.”
The department also said that they would be prioritizing the processing of veteran’s benefits claims for cancers associated with the PACT Act and that these claims would be expedited to ensure that veterans who suffer from cancer may be able to get necessary care. The list of presumptive cancers includes brain cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, kidney cancer, melanoma, and neck cancers according to the resources page on the Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Mikhael Thompson is a senior journalism major at the University of Connecticut. He reported this story as part of the course JOUR3000W: Public Affairs Reporting.