UConn vets exposed to burn pits welcome expanded health care benefits

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.