Veteran’s groups call on senators to ‘Act on the Pact’ in support of toxic exposure bill

Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

More by....

Danielle Robinson recalled the countless hours in the emergency room and hospitals across Ohio, none of the doctors or nurses ever knew the best course of treatment for her husband’s unusual symptoms and many side effects.

“I slept for months on a loveseat so I could take care of him 24 hours,” Robinson said. “Our nights consisted of him puking at the same time blood was pouring out of his nose and trying to help him breathe with putting his nasal cannula into his mouth. Trying to help him be able to just make it through the night.

“Our young daughter happened to find her superhero daddy lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood one morning. He was gasping for air, and he begged her to go get mommy,” Robinson said. “Our daughter ran and hid under the table shouting why is this happening to him? We tried to shield her from seeing so much trauma but living in the same house it isn’t always possible. So, I’m asking you, senators, would you want to see your loved one struggling and suffering like this?”

Robinson said all of this could have been prevented.

She said she fought the VA (Veterans Affairs) for benefits, medications, testing, hospice care, and caregiver benefits while trying to take care of her loved one in their last months, weeks, days, and hours.

She went through filling out pages of paperwork, saying she knew they would get denied. Just to appeal the process and get rejected again.

“Our focus should be on our loved ones during these final hours,” Robinson said. “These benefits should be automatic. You shouldn’t have to fight and be an advocate for your soldier who’s come home and has now fallen ill from burn pit exposure.”

Robinson said three nights before they put him in hospice care, Heath told her he didn’t know how to give up.

“I held Heath in my arms on our family room floor underneath him for seven hours on his last night,” Robinson said. “I told him he was a great dad, a great friend, husband, family member and a great soldier. And he did good. I told him he fought; he accomplished as much as he could. I told him, ‘you did good.'”

Robinson called upon Sens. McConnell, Paul, Brown and Portman at the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) event held in Erlanger on April 29 to support toxic exposure legislation. She spoke on behalf of her husband, Army Veteran Heath Robinson, who died from burn pit exposures. 

Danielle Robinson speaking at the event. Image provided by DAV.

“Heath Robinson and the rest of his brothers and sisters are sick and slowly dying, and they need your help now,” Robinson said. “How is this happening in America? You want to support and thank of veterans? Vote yes on honoring our PACT Act. Anything less is a disgrace, and frankly, it is inhumane.”

Comedian and television host Jon Stewart was a guest speaker at the event.

“They slept next to metals and toxic waste and fecal matter that was lit on fire with jet fuel and diesel,” Stewart said. “The smoking gun in this situation is literally smoking guns.”

Stewart has been an advocate for veterans and the PACT Act and 9/11 first responders.

“We honor their service and sacrifice at football games and discounts at Denny’s, and we think we’ve done our jobs as Americans and as patriots,” Stewart said. “We’ve done nothing of the sort.”

The event called on the veteran community, fellow Americans and U.S senators to support the PACT Act to help multiple generations of veterans suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange, contaminated water and burn pits.

Agent Orange was a herbicide mixture used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, according to aspeninstitute.org. Much of it contained a dangerous chemical contaminant called dioxin. Illnesses connected to Agent Orange are bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, Parkinson-like symptoms, and high blood pressure. Affecting an estimated 83,000 veterans.

“Much like Agent Orange in Vietnam, burn pit exposure has become synonymous with combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries to which American troops deployed following 9/11,” according to dav.org. “Since then, millions of veterans and service members have potentially been exposed to areas of open-air, uncontrolled combustion of trash and other waste. The ubiquitous practice caused toxic substances to fill the air where American troops have served, sparking a host of long-term health consequences.”

The PACT Act addresses the toll toxic exposure takes on veterans, from difficulty breathing to cancer and death. The legislation would provide health care, establish presumptive diseases and create a new framework for veterans exposed to toxic materials during their service. The act passed the House of Representatives on March 3 of this year. The Senate will vote on it in the coming weeks.

“The VA has publicly said they support the honoring our PACT Act. The President of the United States has said he will sign it into law if it passes.” DAV Deputy National Legislative Director Shane Liermann said. “So that means it has to come through the Senate. That’s why we’re here.”

Speakers at the event repetitively called upon U.S Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul from Kentucky and Robert Jones Portman and Sherrod Brown from Ohio.

Stewart said when the PACT Act passed the House of Representatives, 174 Republican congressmen and women voted against it. Stewart said they are nine Republican senators away from passing the bill.

Regional Representative for Senator Sherrod Brown, Mike King, was in attendance and spoke at the event on behalf of Senator Brown.

“Our country has a duty to ensure that all veterans are able to get the quality, affordable VA care they earned and they deserve,” King read the remarks from Senator Brown. “The honoring our PACT Act is the most comprehensive toxic exposure bill ever voted on it, and it would impact nearly 3.5 million American veterans that have been exposed today.”

A representative for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Kaitlynne Hetrick, said 90% of the 3.5 million American veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins believe that they already have or may have symptoms as a direct result of that exposure.

Cory Titus, Representing the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), spoke at the event on behalf of Amelia Stanley. Stanley is the surviving spouse of Major Jason Stanley, a retired Air Force Special Operations Pilot. Last month, he passed away from a glioblastoma (a type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord).

Titus said Stanley did not recognize that his headaches and nose bleeds were symptoms of much deeper health issues. Stanley suffered his first seizure in June of 2021. His cognitive declined soon after.

“They found confusion, gaps and delays getting into the VA system and receiving the care that Jason deserved from his service,” Titus said.

Once Jason’s claim was submitted in December 2021, the VA granted his claim in just over three months, on February 12 of this year.

“This case was fortunately expedited, and we’re grateful for that, but we can do much better for our veterans,” Titus said. “It should not have been his responsibility to note the service from Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and Uzbekistan put him at greater risk for illnesses from burn pit exposures.”

Without Amelia Stanley’s help, Titus said that Stanley would have been incapable of doing the work to get his medical appointments scheduled, coordinate transportation, or get a claim filed.

“Amelia had to rig up equipment to get Jason in and out of bed, turning their bedroom into a makeshift hospital,” Titus said. “Instead of having hospice and caregiver support through the VA for the last several months of Jason’s life, his son Harrison quit his job as an archaeologist in Columbus to come home to help the family. Jason was granted service connection, but delays from not having a simple process caused unnecessary struggles in his final days. And he’s not alone; nearly 80% of claims are denied by the VA.”

IAVA representative Hetrick said there had been some concerns over the VA’s capacity to handle the number of claims filed because of this legislation and how there could be a considerable wait time due to the backlog.

“I would say that waiting in a line that has a destination is much better than waiting for something that doesn’t exist,” Hetrick said. “All of this, just to say, we must pass the PACT Act now. It is disrespectful to ask our service members to fight for this country and then turn our backs on them when they come home and start to feel the effects of that fight.”

Veterans who experienced burn pit exposure spoke at the event to attest to their encounters.

Marine Corps Veteran Cody Esparza served two tours in Iraq. His first tour was in Iskandariya (Alexandria) in Iraq. He recalls the tents they lived in were between a power plant bordering the Euphrates River and a burn pit where they staged their Humvees.

Cody Esparza. Image provided by DAV

Esparza said they didn’t think much of it at the time. Until they got home, some of his friends started coming down with different illnesses.

“It’s hard talking about when you lose somebody that survived fighting over there to come home and to be taken by something like that,” Esparza said.

Esparza said he suffers from chronic cough issues, though he said who knows what could be next.

“This isn’t just about Marines in Iraq, the people that fought in the Iraq/Afghanistan war,” Esparza said. “It’s about all of us. For Vietnam veterans and everybody else that served. But hopefully, my story gives somebody some hope that this act will pass and that we won’t have to worry about going to the VA and having to file claims to get what we need to survive.”

Marine Veteran Michael Goodman was in attendance, representing the Wounded Warrior Project. He served five deployments from 2003 to 2009.

Michael Goodman. Image provided by DAV.

“During that time period, we were exposed to everything. We did our job, our mission, to answer our nation’s call,” Goodman said.

Goodman remembered “blue barrels of death” being in the area. Not knowing what was in them, he said they just kept pushing to complete their missions.

On his way to the DAV center to get to the event, Goodman said he drove behind a dump truck hauling asphalt and noticed the smoke coming off. But Goodman said he is aware of the OSHA standards, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and emissions controls in the U.S.

“When we’re overseas, we don’t have that,” Goodman said. “You don’t have somebody protecting us over there. We just have each other. So thinking about that, if we could protect the people here in the United States, how can we protect us, my brothers, my sisters who are fighting overseas?”

Army veteran Tim Hughes was exposed to burn pits used to dispose of all wastes, including toxic substances, while serving in the Persian Gulf. He spoke on behalf of Burn Pits 360.

Tim Hughes. Image provided by DAV.

Hughes carries a portable oxygen tank with him wherever he goes.

Hughes started experiencing breathing problems soon after returning to the U.S. He would pass out for what he thought was no reason. He visited numerous hospitals and doctors. He had tests, X-rays, CAT scans and MRIs done. No one could figure out what was wrong with him.

Hughes said the Iraqi army stated they set wells (full of toxins) on fire to kill American soldiers for decades. He was also exposed to those wells.

“Not only was I poisoned by my enemy, but I was also poisoned by our own government,” Hughes said. 

He filed his first claim four years after he was in the air force. After Hughes filed, it took 25 years to get his first service connection.

“25 years delays. 25 years of being denied. 25 years of depression. Almost half of my life has been spent fighting the VA,” Hughes said. “Only to find out two years ago that I’m terminally ill. I’m going to die here soon.”

Hughes said his fight isn’t over until all of his brothers and sisters get their health care. That is why he spoke at the event to support honoring the PACT Act.

“I am sick and tired of the crumbs elected officials throw at our feet like were pigeons in a park,” Hughes said.

Air Force veteran Kevin Hensley served eight deployments to the middle east. Four of the locations operated open-air burn pits.

Kevin Hensley. Image provided by DAV.

In 2017 Hensley was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, a terminal lung disease. Like Hughes, he carries a portable oxygen tank with him.

In 2018 he was diagnosed with toxic encephalitis, a toxic brain injury. A SPECT scan showed Hensley’s brain was nearly 90% deprived of blood flow.

“To Senator McConnell and Paul and all the members in the United States Senate, Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and other locations are sick and dying and have been poisoned in our service to our nation.”

Hensley said this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It is a veteran and American issue. He urges people to call and email their senators supporting the PACT Act.

“The senators have to know that the American people will see where they stand, and they will see if they only support the troops until the troops need support,” Stewart said. “Because the stories you heard today are the tip of the iceberg of the suffering that our veteran’s community undergoes, as our government continues to put up obstacles to their care and to their wellbeing.”

More articles

Latest articles

In Case You Missed It