Millions of veterans exposed to toxins can finally receive the help they need. On Wednesday, President Biden signed the PACT Act, which expands benefits for those exposed to burn pits.
“Veterans deserve this. They earned this. And Peter in particular felt like he was begging, and that’s not okay. Our nation’s heroes should not feel like they are begging for what they earned,” said Berlin resident Amy Antioho.
Antioho’s husband, Peter, was exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Afghanistan in 2012. At the age of 34, he would die from it.
Before that, the Antioho family fought for care and compensation from the VA only to be denied again and again. They were told they had to prove burn pits caused his cancer. Senator Blumenthal stepped in to get the claim approved.
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Their fight and refusal to give up, along with so many advocates, led to this moment.
On Wednesday, President Biden signed legislation that expands healthcare benefits for affected veterans and makes it easier for their claims to be approved. Before the legislation, the Associated Press reported that the majority of claims for exposure to burn pits were denied.
Burn pits are used to eliminate trash, like chemicals, ammunition, weapons and human waste. Officials estimate 3.5 million veterans have been exposed.
“A veteran or current service member had to actually prove a connection, a nexus between their illness and a burn pit. They had to establish location. They had to establish they were there. They had to establish their illness was connected and that there was not another cause to it with a large number of them being denied. And I had veterans say to me, this is heart-wrenching to hear this, ‘Commissioner, I think they're waiting for me to just die before I can get this benefit either for myself or my family,’” said Connecticut Dept. of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Thomas Saadi.
Saadi said this landmark legislation will help many veterans in our state. He said those previously denied should make a claim again.
“We have veteran service officers around the state who are ready to represent veterans in their claims for these service-connected benefits that they unfortunately earned through exposure to these toxins during their military service,” Saadi said.
For many, it’s legislation that comes too late, and the loved ones who continued to advocate and fight for them say it’s about time.
“Yeah, it’s overwhelming,” said June Heston, who lost her husband to cancer. “It’s definitely bittersweet. When I told my daughter that the bill passed, she said, ‘But it didn’t bring Dad back.’ And she’s right. It will not bring those people back. But we are making a difference for so many others.”
“I want every single one of those 3.5 million veterans to know about this program, and if they’re suffering headaches or hypertension or cancer or any of the other hideous diseases that this kind of burn pit can cause, they should know the care and benefits are there for them,” Blumenthal said.
“Hopefully we will continue to learn in the future that we cannot wait so long like with Agent Orange or this burn pit legislation to provide those benefits to our veterans and service members,” Saadi said.
For those veterans who were exposed and have already died, we’re told there may possibly be some survivor benefits available, so it’s worth asking about.
The CT Veterans Affairs Commissioner said the legislation also adds locations and presumptive conditions for those exposed to Agent Orange and radiological materials.
Senator Blumenthal is holding sessions around the state to make sure veterans get the information they need. You can call the Veterans Affairs Office of Advocacy and Assistance to get in touch with someone who can help you with a claim. That number is 860-616-3685.