After her soldier husband died in 2010 of a rare cancer following a combat deployment in Iraq, Dina McKenna pushed to end the combat zone practice of burning military trash in open air "burn pits."
The Lindenhurst resident's efforts helped persuade Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) to successfully press for restrictions to the practice, which she and others said exposed soldiers to potentially carcinogenic fumes.
"It means a lot that a small army wife could make it this far and be invited to the Capitol," McKenna said. "That an ordinary person, a new widow without a voice, could speak up and people listen."
In January, Obama signed legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry of troops who served near waste-disposing burn pits. The registry could help epidemiologists determine whether troops exposed to burn pit fumes face elevated rates of cancers or other illnesses.
The Pentagon began curtailing its use of burn pits in 2010, closing the last remaining ones in Iraq. But dozens more remained in use near bases in Afghanistan.
McKenna's husband, Sgt. Bill McKenna, 41, died in a Florida hospice following a battle with cancer and lung ailments. He has two daughters, now aged 8 and 15.
According to Bishop's office, the VA acknowledged that McKenna's illness was related to his exposure to fumes from burn pits at Bilad Air Base, Iraq. Burn pits there, which were ignited with jet fuel, were used to incinerate hundreds of tons of trash, included spent uniforms, wrecked Humvees, human excrement, discarded chemicals and even amputated limbs and medical waste. Troops living in tents a mile from the pits often were engulfed in a smoky haze.
Dina McKenna said she hopes the registry will encourage veterans who were exposed to burn pit fumes to explore whether they are suffering illnesses because of it.
"I think it brings a greater awareness to soldiers who are not losing their lives to enemy fire, but to chemical exposure that can be prevented," McKenna said. "I became a voice for burn pit victims, and people listened."