(NewsNation) — Retired Air Force Technical Sgt. Rocky Harlow worked daily through dense burn pit smoke during two tours in Iraq. Since then, his greatest fear is what feels like an inevitable cancer diagnosis.
“I feel like I have a loaded shotgun pointed at my head and it’s only a matter of time before cancer pulls the trigger,” Harlow said.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed bipartisan legislation that will offer more protection and access to health care for veterans who were impacted by toxic burn pits while serving overseas.
“We owe you,” Biden said Wednesday. “You’re the backbone…You’re the very fiber that makes this country what it is.”
Veterans and those who serve them are now counting on the PACT Act to link more than 3 million veterans to additional health care coverage. That’s important, clinical therapist Tricia Winklowsky said, because the process from the point of diagnosis to receiving treatment can be overwhelming.
“There are a lot of stressors involved with that type of care treatment,” she said. “First of all, just identifying it … there’s lots of tests. There’s lots of appointments. There’s labs.”
Winklowsky works as the head of well-being programs and services for Hope For The Warriors — a nonprofit that connects service members, veterans and military families with resources. She’s seen firsthand the barriers veterans face while trying to attain proper health care.
Exposure to chemicals from burn pits can result in a slew of health problems.
While Harlow has noticed new lesions and changes on his skin, others have developed tremors, cancer and respiratory conditions.
Missouri resident Joe Clarkson, 57, lives daily with autoimmune and respiratory conditions linked to his Army deployment to Iraq in 2004.
“I’m tired all the time,” Clarkson said. “Going up a flight of steps is a butt-kicker. I can walk flat surfaces, but going up steps, it just makes me winded and takes my breath away very quickly.”
When the pandemic began, Clarkson was too vulnerable to continue his work as an electrician, he said. He now receives disability benefits.
For U.S. Navy veteran Kevin Simon, it was his feet that began to burn more than his lungs.
“I ended up with neuropathy and my feet burned 24/7,” Simon said. “That started about 15 years ago and VA, of course, chalked it up to ‘it can be anything.’ They ran every test on me.”
Simon still remembers the heat from the oil rig fires he encountered while serving in the Gulf War. At times, the heavy smoke created a perimeter around the base, he said.
“When you smell it, you always know it,” Simon said. “It smells like something on fire. You can’t really describe it, but as close as we were to them, we could feel the fire. We could feel the heat coming off of the oil rigs and there were days that it looked like nighttime.”
According to Simon, the chemical alarm on his ship sounded at least three times, warning of possible exposure to harmful substances.
“They signed our death warrants,” Simon said. “Whether they want to say it or not.”
According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, more than 190,000 veterans had participated in the association’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry as of Dec. 31, 2019.
Within that group, the most common medical conditions reported were insomnia, neurological problems and allergies.
Army veteran Andrea Neutzling is grateful that treatment for her respiratory conditions is provided through the VA, but she’s seen others incur debt trying to treat their symptoms as their own VA claims await approval.
“A lot of people have been having medical debt, trying to get this taken care of, because of where the VA doesn’t want to say it’s service connected. And it was the same way with Vietnam and Agent Orange,” she said, donning a shirt that read, “I was killed in Iraq. My body hasn’t caught up yet.”
For some, the acknowledgment that a veteran’s condition is tied to their time in service can be a barrier in itself. The Pact Act adds more than 20 new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures, granting more people access to health care through Veteran Affairs.
“That acknowledgment, I think, is huge for many of our veterans and their families to say, ‘Yes — you were exposed to these things in your service and we acknowledge that and support you,'” Winklowsky said.
Congress was poised to pass the PACT ACT last week, but at the last minute, 25 Republican senators changed their votes from yes to no. They blamed Democrats for including a budget “gimmick” that they said could divert billions away from veteran issues.
After the bill cleared the final hurdle in the Senate last week, Winklosky said it’s “a fantastic first step,” but moving forward, she hopes to see a larger social impact.
“Our veterans are so service-oriented…” she said. “A huge part is being able to give back in a collective sense to better research and support overall. I’m looking forward to that.”