BOSTON (WHDH) - A long-awaited bill that will enhance health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits is now headed to President Biden’s desk.
The PACT Act of 2022 won final approval in the Senate on Tuesday, ending a brief stalemate over the measure that had infuriated advocates and inspired some to camp outside the Capitol.
The legislation directs the VA to presume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit exposure, allowing veterans to obtain disability payments to compensate for their injury without having to prove the illness was a result of their service. If you are a veteran and believe your illness could be linked to your service, visit the Department of Veteran Affairs website.
The legislation is meaningful for the hundreds of thousands of veterans looking to determine whether toxic exposure during their time overseas is responsible for the illnesses they are now facing.
Two of those veterans are Matt Houston and Jonathan Daige. The Massachusetts men were both inspired to join the military after the events of September 11, 2001.
Houston was deployed to Iraq in August of 2005, and came back home Thanksgiving weekend of 2006.
“We were basically all over Iraq for about a year and a half – 16 months,” the Army veteran told 7NEWS. “There were good days and bad days… We were out there talking to people, helping bring school supplies to kids, helping set up elections.”
When Houston returned home from war, he went to school, got a job, got married and had two kids. Everything seemed fine until he started dealing with back issues in 2021. Last August, a physical therapist referred him to a spine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. The specialist ordered X-rays.
“I got the X-rays back that night and I started freaking out,” Houston explained. “I had four fractured vertebrae and severe osteoporosis of someone who would be in their 60s or 70s in my spine.”
Later that week, after having an MRI done, the 38-year-old was diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a rare blood cancer that affects your plasma cells. There is no cure.
Houston joined a clinical trial, did four months of chemotherapy, and most recently underwent a stem cell transplant at Mass General.
“When you look at the age progression of people who get this, it’s usually men in their 60s. I’m on the very far left end of that bell curve,” said Houston, who said that doctors haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of his cancer. They have told him it’s not hereditary and that it is rare.
He’s now attempting to connect the dots on his own. Houston is in the process of working with the Department of Veteran Affairs to get on the Burn Pit Registry.
“It’s really within only the last year, maybe less, that the toxic exposure has been forefront in my mind,” he said. “But, it never occurred to me.”
Jonathan Daige has also been trying to figure out the cause of his cancers for years. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003. He spent 10 months overseas, came home, and was deployed again in 2005.
“It was different. It was hot. Living conditions weren’t the best, especially in 2003,” Daige told 7 News. “But it was expected with the war kicking off.”
When he got back home from second his deployment, Daige joined the police academy and became a Worcester Police Officer. Then, in 2013, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at just 29 years old.
Daige required outpatient surgery to remove the growth. After a recovery period and a chest x-ray, he received more bad news. “I ended up going to the doctors, having a chest X-ray, and they found six tumors in my chest and lungs.”
Doctors told him the testicular cancer had spread. Now a patient at Dana Farber, he also found out he had a brain tumor. After brain surgery, radiation, and then another bout of cancer, Daige beat the odds. But his health success was short-lived.
“I was about seven years cancer-free until November 2021,” he said.
Last fall, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, an uncommon type of cancer of the bone marrow. He is treating it with medication as he looks to identify why he has dealt with so many cancer battles.
“I believe it has to do with something environmental.” Daige said he remembers seeing burn pits on military bases where he was stationed. “I just remember seeing the smoke going up, and seeing this black funnel of smoke just carrying through the air.”
Burn pits were giant fires the military used in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to get rid of a myriad of things. The Department of Veteran Affairs says the pits were used to burn chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal and aluminum cans, munitions and unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics, rubber, wood, and food waste.
“The military is a self-sufficient community in a base somewhere. So whatever we take in, we leave,” Daige said. “It’s either bury it or burn it.”
Several members of his unit, including Sgt. Jonnathon DuClau, of Rhode Island, have dealt with cancer battles since returning home. Sgt. DuClau died of liver cancer in 2019.
“My dad’s cousin was a Vietnam vet, who died from agent orange in the 80s. That was recognized after the fact,” he said. “I don’t want to be 50, 60, 70, 80 years old, pass away, and have the government be like — ‘Here is your burn pit packet, family’ or whatever they are going to give the families after the fact.”
For Daige, his cancer battles have propelled him into a life-long mission of service. He has started a non-profit called Thin Blue Ride. He raises money for cancer research at Dana Farber, and to help other military veterans, first responders and their families when they are diagnosed with cancer.
With the PACT Act now set to become law, both Daige and Houston said they are hopeful it can make a difference. They also hope this is only the first step in helping our country’s veterans.
“Sometimes it takes a tragedy for someone to wake up and realize how important the research will be.” Daige said. “I’m not entirely relieved with the bill. It’s like ‘Ok, this is a start.’ But there needs to be a long road ahead of solutions and deadlines along the way.”
“In terms of the overall national conversation… I think it’s extremely important,” Houston said during an interview on Wednesday. “It’s good that they are moving in the right direction. Is it perfect? No. But it’s moving it where it needs to go and it will eventually get where it needs to be.”
If you are a veteran in New England who believes they have suffered from toxic exposure, contact the Hunter Seven Foundation.
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