SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Legislation passed this week in the U.S. Senate with bi-partisan support finally promises healthcare for veterans suffering illnesses from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s our job to stand up for the people who stand up for us,” said Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock who voted for the PACT Act. “After fighting for us they shouldn’t have to fight with us to get the benefits that they deserve.”
It’s estimated that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits. One of them is Antonio Pittman from Richmond Hill.
Pittman was a platoon Sergeant in 2003 and was part of the first group of Americans to make its way into Iraq. He says they had no latrines for example and ended up burning the waste.
“Stir it and burn it,” said Pittman. “So in the midst of doing that, we’re burning human waste and with the fuel burning and fumes are coming back up into our faces, so we’re breathing it in while we’re burning it.”
Pittman and thousands of other soldiers from Georgia were exposed to some kind of burn pit throughout their time overseas. Often, the pits were designed to burn garbage but ended up as dumps for chemicals as well.
When Pittman came home, he started having severe sinus headaches and developed chronic respiratory problems. He says he is never ‘without a cough drop’ even at night while trying to sleep.
“I can’t sleep because I wake up with a throat that’s tight and just scratchy and itchy,” said Pittman. It stays with me every day and every night I sleep with cough drop in my mouth and could that be dangerous, yeah because I probably could choke on it, but the other alternative is I’m never going to get any sleep.”
Over the years, veterans’ groups have argued that a long list of health problems have resulted from burn pit exposure which includes upper respiratory illnesses, emphysema and a list of cancers.
“I was denied benefits from the Veterans Administration (VA) based on those burn pits,” said Pittman. “Most of the soldiers that served with me are having these issues and we just got to a point where we just stopped fighting about it. After a while you get tired of being told no.’
Senator Warnock says the legislation requires the VA to recognize the list of illnesses that are related to burn pit exposure.
“And so, this legislation will cover a whole generation of veterans, post 9-11 veterans who have experienced toxic exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Warnock. “It expands the definitions around Agent Orange exposure to areas that have not been previously covered.
“Too much of the onus of proving the connection between their sickness and their service has been left on the veterans’ shoulders,” said Warnock. “This appropriately shifts the burden and gives them a pathway to get the care that they need. Vets shouldn’t have to fight with us after fighting for us.”
The bill also provides up to $3 Billion over the next decade to provide healthcare to veterans like Pittman.
“So, we come back here and all we ask is that the Government, the American people support us and give us the help that we need,” said Pittman. “The determination that these burn pits did impact us would be great for a lot of soldiers. They will be vindicated, and their families will get added support that we all need.”