Routine Physical Saves Veteran’s Life after Burn Pit Exposure
Army veteran Andrew Myatt did all the right things to take care of himself. He exercised, ate well, didn’t smoke or drink. After more than 20 years in the service, he’d developed a routine and felt fit and healthy, but he still made sure to get his regular physicals. It turned out, that’s what saved his life.
During a routine physical three years ago, his doctor saw something concerning and sent Andrew to an oncologist for more tests. The result: an aggressive form of adult leukemia, a cancer that affects the blood-forming cells in the body. Because the cancer was caught early, Andrew immediately began chemotherapy and other treatments. After finishing three years of heavy rounds of chemo, Andrew’s leukemia was in remission, but his weakened immune system left him susceptible to other ailments – including skin cancer, which he’s currently being treated for.
“On paper, I did everything I was supposed to,” Andrew said. “I don't drink soda or eat fast food. I have a very healthy lifestyle and diet. And yet, I've come down with two cancers in the last three years.”
Initially, Andrew didn’t connect his cancer to his time in the military, including multiple deployments, or exposure to burn pits. In the early stages after his diagnosis, he just focused on getting treatment and beating the disease rather than thinking about how it happened. It wasn’t until he spoke with a benefits expert from Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) about his exposure to toxins that he started doing some research and made the correlation.
“It's amazing how much information is out there, which you don't even think to look for,” Andrew said. “This is something that's happening throughout the community of veterans, especially people who served in the Middle East.”
Another warrior, Scott Evans, publicly shared his story about his fight against cancer. The Marine veteran did two tours in Afghanistan, helping train military dogs to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A lot of the training was done in and around burn pits. During his time in Afghanistan, Scott said he began to experience chronic coughing and sneezing, but attributed it to the dry, sandy desert climate.
In 2020, less than nine years after being honorably discharged from the Marines, Scott was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. In the months prior to his diagnosis, Scott struggled to qualify for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care benefits because it had been more than five years since his discharge. After discovering WWP, Scott was able to get help accessing health care through VA, and have his cancer designated as service-connected, qualifying him for disability benefits.
Unfortunately, Andrew and Scott’s stories aren’t particularly uncommon for service members, especially those who served in combat zones. In WWP’s 2021 Annual Warrior Survey, 98% of warriors reported being exposed to hazardous or toxic chemicals during service, and 75% reported being exposed to burn pits, specifically. VA and Congress are acknowledging the health hazards presented by burn pits and other toxic exposures throughout the military — something Andrew wished he’d been aware of during his time in service.
“I was a senior NCO [non-commissioned officer], and I eventually became an officer. I knew nothing about toxic exposure, and I commanded soldiers in combat,” Andrew said. “Everything we do in the military is about risk mitigation, and it wasn’t even on my radar. I've talked to a lot of still-serving officers who served under me, and I've relayed this information to them, and they're now relaying to their soldiers. So just the fact that as a community, we're actually becoming aware of this and talking about it is amazing.”
Passage of the PACT Act
The effect of toxic exposure on service members was officially recognized in 2022 with the passage of the SFC Health Robison Honoring Our PACT Act, which guarantees care and benefits for veterans who suffer ill effects of exposure to burn pits and other toxic substances while serving our nation.
WWP and other veterans service organizations advocated diligently for years to get this groundbreaking legislation passed and help warriors across the country.
The PACT Act:
- Declares 24 presumptive conditions tied to toxic exposure.
- Establishes 31 new VA health care facilities.
- Grants VA health enrollment eligibility to any veteran who deployed to certain areas of known exposure during service.
For injured combat veterans exposed to burn pits, like Andrew, the PACT Act helps alleviate the burden of proof needed to make a service connection for VA benefits. Veterans who qualify under the PACT Act and are diagnosed with cancer have priority when it comes to VA health care and other benefits.
“What the bill does is open up the door for entitlement to health care, even if they don't yet have a service-connected condition,” said Tim Velasquez, WWP veterans benefits training specialist. “Those new possibilities for health care under this bill are incredible as far as the opportunities they open to veterans who may not have had that door open to them before.”
Protecting the Next Generations of Veterans
For Andrew, the realization of all the things he was exposed to in his many years of service and his numerous deployments allowed him to put his cancer diagnosis in context.
“There are a lot of things you'll find in the military that you're exposed to that you never even realized at the time,” he said. “We all did multiple rotations. Now we have a lot of people who have survived those exposures and are getting older, and those effects are showing up.”
It’s a lesson Andrew hopes the military will use to protect those who continue to serve our country and those who will serve in the future.
“Ever since there has been a military, there has been something that we learned after major engagements that we probably should have done better,” Andrew said. “We figured these things out, and then we pass that information along. And for my generation [of service members], it's the burn pits.”
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, email@example.com, 904.570.7910
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