Legislation approved by the Senate this week will make it easier for veterans with certain cancers and other conditions to access health and disability benefits, if the conditions are defined as “presumed” to be linked to veterans’ exposure to burn pits and other toxic sites during military service. Newsday's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas, John Conrad Williams Jr.; Kendall Rodriguez; Photo credit: Patrick Donohue; Ben Birchall - PA Images; RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy Stock Photo; AP/ Simon Klingert; AFP via Getty Images/ Johannes Eisele; The Washington Post via Getty Images; TNS/ Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

Patrick Donohue spent six months with the Army's 101st Airborne Division near a burn pit in Afghanistan, inhaling toxins from plastics, human and medical waste, and other items.

Today, the Islip man has a brain tumor that causes excruciating headaches, and he can rarely get enough sleep.

“I’m tired all day,” he said.

Donohue is one of an estimated 3.5 million veterans who the federal government said may have been exposed to burn pits, hundreds of which were used in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries where the United States had a military presence. Chemicals, plastics, human waste, computer equipment, paint, metal, petroleum, Styrofoam and rubber were among the trash and waste products from military bases that were burned, according to veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The pits were as large as 10 acres, the Military Times has reported.

Legislation approved by the Senate on Tuesday will make it easier for veterans with certain cancers and other conditions to access health and disability benefits, if the conditions are defined as “presumed” to be linked to veterans’ exposure to burn pits and other toxic sites during military service. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill, the Honoring Our PACT Act, on Monday. It's projected to cost about $277 billion over the next 10 years.

Long Island veterans say even though the bill is a big step forward, it doesn't cover some of the burn-pit-related conditions they and other veterans are enduring, and the government should add more diseases and health problems to the list. Veterans can still receive benefits if they have a condition that's not on the list — but the burden is on them to prove the link to burn pits, and the VA has denied most claims.

Donohue, who was an Army specialist, supervised operations at a 130-foot-wide burn pit outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2010 and 2011.

“I was right next to it for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for about six months,” he said.

Depending on the wind, the smoke sometimes blew directly in his face.

The headaches started during his service in Afghanistan — and got progressively worse. Donohue said he was diagnosed with meningioma, a noncancerous tumor, in 2016. The VA initially denied benefits, saying he did not prove the tumor was related to his service, he said.

The VA has denied about 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure. The PACT Act was introduced in part because of the high denial rate.

The VA said in an email Thursday that the denial rate is from a report that was “discontinued” in December because it only included claims in which burn pits were explicitly named as a cause of a medical condition. Veterans don’t always specify the cause of their disability, the VA said.

Donohue said he fought his denial for six years until, in March, the VA agreed to partially compensate him for loss of job productivity due to the tumor. In June, he filed a similar disability claim related to severe sleep apnea, which he said causes him to constantly wake up during the night.

That makes it more difficult to perform his job as an attorney for veterans’ disability cases, said Donohue, who also founded the Islip nonprofit veterans’ assistance group Project9line.

“It totally slows me down,” he said.

Steve Harrington, 51, of Carle Place, a client of Donohue’s, was diagnosed last year with upper tract urothelial carcinoma, a cancer not specifically covered by the PACT Act. But he said it started in a kidney that was removed during an April surgery, and kidney cancer is covered by the act, so Harrington hopes he qualifies.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said. 

The VA repeatedly denied his disability claims for the cancer, even though his oncologist wrote that “it’s at least as likely as not” that it stemmed from exposure to burn pits and to burning oil fields in the 1990-91 Gulf War, said Harrington, who was an Army specialist at the time. The VA said Thursday that the agency often has evidence “that a private doctor may not have reviewed.”

The VA approved a separate disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, Harrington said.

Some health conditions related to burn pit exposure may not have emerged yet, because the diseases can take years or decades to develop, said Dr. Anthony Szema, a South Setauket allergist, immunologist and pulmonary specialist and a leading researcher on burn pits.

That’s also the case with Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Vietnam War more than a half century ago, said Szema, director of the Northwell Health International Center of Excellence in Deployment Health and Medical Geosciences and an investigator at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset.

In addition to addressing burn pits, the PACT Act expands Vietnam veterans’ coverage for two conditions that had not initially been linked to Agent Orange.

Szema, who has testified multiple times before Congress and the Defense Department on burn pits, began seeing the effects of the pits in 2004, while director of the allergy clinic at the Northport VA hospital. Typical patients at the clinic had been older white men, until veterans began returning from the Iraq War.

“It completely changed,” he said. “It was 20-year-old female and male soldiers who were otherwise healthy, of all ethnicities.”

Jet fuel — used to burn much of the trash — and metals such as iron and titanium were found in veterans’ lungs, Szema said.

Only in 2009 did doctors learn of the burn pits and connect them to breathing and other problems they were encountering, he said.

Nearly 290,000 people have signed on to a VA registry for those who may have been exposed to airborne pollutants. But Szema said the “scope of the problem is clearly larger,” and not just among U.S. soldiers.

“What about all the kids who live in Iraq who were exposed there?” he asked. “What about the nongovernmental organizations and military contractors?”

Juan Serrano, vice president, military liaison services at Northwell Health, helped supervise burn pits as a Marine sergeant in a convoy in Iraq in 2003.

One of his health conditions that he believes stems from the burn pits — rhinitis, which includes symptoms such as a scratchy throat, runny nose and watery eyes — may be covered by the PACT Act. Serrano is unsure if it’s considered “chronic,” as the VA requires. Other symptoms, such as headaches and heartburn, are not — although he plans to file claims for all his conditions.

Serrano, who lives in Nassau County, recalled how when he was overseeing pits, “I was nauseous continuously and couldn’t hold food down. This is black smoke that hits you, and when it hits you, you feel it and it goes into your lungs. You can taste it, the JP-5 [jet fuel] in your mouth, along with whatever particles were in the air.”

Other Marines spent much more time next to burn pits, or near the burn pits burning and stirring human waste in 50-gallon half-drums until the waste turned into ash, Serrano said.

“I had young men and women, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, spending extended periods of time burning and discarding trash, and then they came out looking like chimney workers from the '20s in England, covered in soot from head to toe and no real way to clean themselves, to decontaminate themselves, other than good old water,” he said.

Soldiers had to wear contaminated uniforms repeatedly, Serrano said.

“I spent a fraction of the time that many of these young men and women spent burning all this trash for an extended period of time,” he said. “I can only imagine how they are today.”

Serrano said that, in the military, “We don’t have the luxury of questioning authority and questioning orders.”

“We asked them to serve,” he said of those exposed to burn pits. “We asked them to do all this work. Now we just really have to take care of them.”

Patrick Donohue spent six months with the Army's 101st Airborne Division near a burn pit in Afghanistan, inhaling toxins from plastics, human and medical waste, and other items.

Today, the Islip man has a brain tumor that causes excruciating headaches, and he can rarely get enough sleep.

“I’m tired all day,” he said.

Donohue is one of an estimated 3.5 million veterans who the federal government said may have been exposed to burn pits, hundreds of which were used in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries where the United States had a military presence. Chemicals, plastics, human waste, computer equipment, paint, metal, petroleum, Styrofoam and rubber were among the trash and waste products from military bases that were burned, according to veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The pits were as large as 10 acres, the Military Times has reported.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law on Monday a bill that makes it easier for some veterans who were exposed to burn pits to obtain health and disability benefits.
  • The pits, in which toxic materials were burned, have caused an array of health problems. But some Long Island veterans say their conditions aren’t covered, meaning greater difficulty in obtaining benefits.
  • Certain cancers and diseases, including some lung diseases, are now covered by the act. But some health conditions may not have emerged yet, because diseases can take years or decades to develop, one leading expert on burn pits said.

Legislation approved by the Senate on Tuesday will make it easier for veterans with certain cancers and other conditions to access health and disability benefits, if the conditions are defined as “presumed” to be linked to veterans’ exposure to burn pits and other toxic sites during military service. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill, the Honoring Our PACT Act, on Monday. It's projected to cost about $277 billion over the next 10 years.

Long Island veterans say even though the bill is a big step forward, it doesn't cover some of the burn-pit-related conditions they and other veterans are enduring, and the government should add more diseases and health problems to the list. Veterans can still receive benefits if they have a condition that's not on the list — but the burden is on them to prove the link to burn pits, and the VA has denied most claims.

Donohue, who was an Army specialist, supervised operations at a 130-foot-wide burn pit outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2010 and 2011.

“I was right next to it for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for about six months,” he said.

Depending on the wind, the smoke sometimes blew directly in his face.

The headaches started during his service in Afghanistan — and got progressively worse. Donohue said he was diagnosed with meningioma, a noncancerous tumor, in 2016. The VA initially denied benefits, saying he did not prove the tumor was related to his service, he said.

The VA has denied about 70% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure. The PACT Act was introduced in part because of the high denial rate.

The VA said in an email Thursday that the denial rate is from a report that was “discontinued” in December because it only included claims in which burn pits were explicitly named as a cause of a medical condition. Veterans don’t always specify the cause of their disability, the VA said.

Donohue said he fought his denial for six years until, in March, the VA agreed to partially compensate him for loss of job productivity due to the tumor. In June, he filed a similar disability claim related to severe sleep apnea, which he said causes him to constantly wake up during the night.

That makes it more difficult to perform his job as an attorney for veterans’ disability cases, said Donohue, who also founded the Islip nonprofit veterans’ assistance group Project9line.

“It totally slows me down,” he said.

VA repeatedly has denied claims

Steve Harrington, 51, of Carle Place, a client of Donohue’s, was diagnosed last year with upper tract urothelial carcinoma, a cancer not specifically covered by the PACT Act. But he said it started in a kidney that was removed during an April surgery, and kidney cancer is covered by the act, so Harrington hopes he qualifies.

“I’m not holding my breath,” he said. 

The VA repeatedly denied his disability claims for the cancer, even though his oncologist wrote that “it’s at least as likely as not” that it stemmed from exposure to burn pits and to burning oil fields in the 1990-91 Gulf War, said Harrington, who was an Army specialist at the time. The VA said Thursday that the agency often has evidence “that a private doctor may not have reviewed.”

The VA approved a separate disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, Harrington said.

Some health conditions related to burn pit exposure may not have emerged yet, because the diseases can take years or decades to develop, said Dr. Anthony Szema, a South Setauket allergist, immunologist and pulmonary specialist and a leading researcher on burn pits.

That’s also the case with Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Vietnam War more than a half century ago, said Szema, director of the Northwell Health International Center of Excellence in Deployment Health and Medical Geosciences and an investigator at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset.

In addition to addressing burn pits, the PACT Act expands Vietnam veterans’ coverage for two conditions that had not initially been linked to Agent Orange.

Szema, who has testified multiple times before Congress and the Defense Department on burn pits, began seeing the effects of the pits in 2004, while director of the allergy clinic at the Northport VA hospital. Typical patients at the clinic had been older white men, until veterans began returning from the Iraq War.

“It completely changed,” he said. “It was 20-year-old female and male soldiers who were otherwise healthy, of all ethnicities.”

Jet fuel — used to burn much of the trash — and metals such as iron and titanium were found in veterans’ lungs, Szema said.

Only in 2009 did doctors learn of the burn pits and connect them to breathing and other problems they were encountering, he said.

Nearly 290,000 people have signed on to a VA registry for those who may have been exposed to airborne pollutants. But Szema said the “scope of the problem is clearly larger,” and not just among U.S. soldiers.

“What about all the kids who live in Iraq who were exposed there?” he asked. “What about the nongovernmental organizations and military contractors?”

Dr. Anthony Szema, director of the Northwell Health International Center...

Dr. Anthony Szema, director of the Northwell Health International Center of Excellence in Deployment Health and Medical Geosciences and an investigator at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Unsure if condition is 'chronic'

Juan Serrano, vice president, military liaison services at Northwell Health, helped supervise burn pits as a Marine sergeant in a convoy in Iraq in 2003.

One of his health conditions that he believes stems from the burn pits — rhinitis, which includes symptoms such as a scratchy throat, runny nose and watery eyes — may be covered by the PACT Act. Serrano is unsure if it’s considered “chronic,” as the VA requires. Other symptoms, such as headaches and heartburn, are not — although he plans to file claims for all his conditions.

Serrano, who lives in Nassau County, recalled how when he was overseeing pits, “I was nauseous continuously and couldn’t hold food down. This is black smoke that hits you, and when it hits you, you feel it and it goes into your lungs. You can taste it, the JP-5 [jet fuel] in your mouth, along with whatever particles were in the air.”

Other Marines spent much more time next to burn pits, or near the burn pits burning and stirring human waste in 50-gallon half-drums until the waste turned into ash, Serrano said.

“I had young men and women, 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, spending extended periods of time burning and discarding trash, and then they came out looking like chimney workers from the '20s in England, covered in soot from head to toe and no real way to clean themselves, to decontaminate themselves, other than good old water,” he said.

Soldiers had to wear contaminated uniforms repeatedly, Serrano said.

“I spent a fraction of the time that many of these young men and women spent burning all this trash for an extended period of time,” he said. “I can only imagine how they are today.”

Serrano said that, in the military, “We don’t have the luxury of questioning authority and questioning orders.”

“We asked them to serve,” he said of those exposed to burn pits. “We asked them to do all this work. Now we just really have to take care of them.”

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