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Veterans exposed to toxic military burn pits would get help under compromise legislation named for Ohio guardsman

U.S. Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG) burn black water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge)

Andrea Neutzling of Syracuse in Ohio’s Meigs County developed a rare, incurable lung disease after exposure to military burn pits in Iraq during a 2005 deployment with the U.S. Army.

Her job required her to burn papers for one to three days each month in her base’s burn pit, where she saw everything burned from lithium-ion batteries, plastic water bottles, tires, medical waste, and metals coated with chemicals. She says she had trouble breathing when she returned from her military service. Two-mile runs that she used to be able to complete in under 20 minutes took more than 45 minutes to finish.

She says it took two years of tests for the Veterans Administration to authorize a lung biopsy that revealed conditions including constrictive bronchiolitis, pulmonary fibrosis, “and a few other things that I’ve not even tried to pronounce.”

It took four years for the VA to acknowledge that her respiratory issues were service-related and provide her with disability benefits.

“They were like, ‘Yes, your lungs are messed up from Iraq, from the burn pit, and they are never going to recover,’” Neutzling told reporters last week. “My lungs are slowly killing me. Basically, Iraq has killed me. My body just hasn’t caught up with it yet.”

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this month announced a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive legislation that they say would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide disability benefits and care for all generations of toxic-exposed veterans, including an estimated 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans like Neutzling who were poisoned by burn pits during their military service.

The legislation is named the “Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022″ after an Ohio National Guard soldier from Pickerington who died in 2020 at age 39 from diseases caused by burn pit exposure. Robinson’s widow, Danielle, was a guest of President Joe Biden’s at this year’s State of the Union address, where Biden plugged the legislation.

Biden said his son, Mayor Beau Biden, lived near a burn pit during his service in Iraq and died of brain cancer at age 46. Biden described how “cancer from prolonged exposure to burn pits ravaged” Robinson’s lungs and body.

“Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end,” Biden said as he announced that the VA would expand care and benefits eligibility to veterans suffering from nine rare respiratory cancers linked to burn pits. He also called on Congress to “pass a law to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive healthcare they deserve.”

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee member Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the bipartisan agreement adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the list of ailments for which VA will provide benefit. He predicts the Senate will act on the bill in June, and the House of Representatives, which passed its own version of the bill in March, will also sign off.

“We haven’t gotten these veterans the care and the benefits they earned and deserve, particularly those exposed to toxic substances while serving,” Brown said. “We should have learned our lessons from Agent Orange in Vietnam. Clearly, the military hasn’t, and politicians who don’t want to serve veterans well have also not learned those lessons.”


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