(NewsNation) — The U.S. Senate passed bipartisan legislation Tuesday night that will offer more protections and access to health care for veterans who were impacted by toxic burn pits while serving overseas.
The PACT Act would create a pathway to additional health care coverage for more than 3 million veterans who were exposed to chemicals from burn pits while serving overseas. The final vote in the Senate was 86-11.
Congress was poised to pass their bill 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.
“It 100% is a slap in the face to everyone who’s served in the past, to everyone who will serve in the future,” said Army veteran Andrea Neutzling, who spoke with NewsNation Tuesday before the final vote was announced.
More than 15 years have passed since Neutzling tended to a burn pit in Iraq, where she was at times responsible for destroying sensitive documents.
The smoldering pit burned more than paper, however. Also in the heap were lithium batteries, plastic water bottles and occasionally, human waste, Neutzling said.
“It smells like the Ohio River smells on a really hot, humid day in the summer, which is a combination of dead fish and sewer,” said Neutzling, an Ohio native who now lives with constrictive bronchiolitis and pulmonary fibrosis, among a slew of other lung conditions.
She now struggles to breathe when it’s too cold or humid, and a two-mile run now takes her about two hours, she said.
Her doctor determined Neutzling’s complications were the result of her time exposed to the burn pit and she was able to secure medical services through the Veterans Association. Others have struggled longer to find proper care or have incurred significant medical debt in the meantime, she said.
Some of those veterans alternated shifts camping outside the Capitol and sleeping on the steps — refusing to leave until Congress passed the bill.
“It’s sad that we haven’t learned our lessons since Vietnam, since World War II,” Neutzling said.
Elsewhere, those directly impacted by the bill carried on while the legislation was at a standstill.
Robin Kelleher is the CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit Hope for the Warriors. She and her team provide health and wellness, transition, peer engagement, and community resource support to service members, veterans, and military families. Over time, the organization became well acquainted with health complications that seemed to be linked to burn pits.
“Many, many years ago, we started having clients come in that had what seemed to be very strange cancers for young, healthy people,” Kelleher said. “When it’s one, you’re like, OK that’s interesting, but then you see several more and it’s like something is taking place. We need to start documenting this.”
Years passed and the potential connection between veterans’ illnesses and their service histories became more apparent. The types of cancers varied, many of them attacking the brain, but several clients could be traced back to burn pits in the same areas, Kelleher said.
“Ideally, it would be great if we could get out in front of this,” she said. “We know where those burn pits are. Identify those service members who were serving in those areas and be more proactive than reactive. … We’ve got to get moving on it because we have people passing away daily.”