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Routine Physical Saves Veteran’s Life after Burn Pit Exposure

Army veteran Andrew Myatt after being diagnosed with leukemia three years ago and before starting cancer treatment. Myatt served more than 20 years in the military, including multiple tours in the Middle East, where  he was exposed to burn pits.

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 2020 Annual Warrior Survey, 70.6% of warriors reported they had definitely been exposed to hazardous chemicals, and 18% reported they probably have been exposed. 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.”

The effects of toxic exposure on service members, especially post-9/11 and after multiple rotations during 20 years of war in the Middle East, is receiving more attention from VA and Congress.

Some of the changes and updates VA has made to address toxic exposure include:

  • In August 2021, veterans exposed to burn pits in certain overseas war zones were given presumptive disability benefits status for asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis. This allowed for veterans diagnosed with these conditions to qualify for VA benefits (if the conditions developed within 10 years after overseas service) without having to provide evidentiary information.
  • VA created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to better understand the long-term effects of burn pit exposures. The registry is open to veterans and service members who served in Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield, New Dawn, or Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom, regardless of whether they are displaying any symptoms of toxic exposure-related illnesses.
  • In November 2021, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said VA is studying and plans to announce in 2022 whether some forms of cancer will be presumptively connected to exposure to military burn pits, entitling veterans to expedited benefits and disability compensation.

While VA continues to implement new policies regarding toxic exposure, there are ongoing legislative efforts in both the House and Senate to address the issue. These include H.R. 3967, the Honoring Our PACT ACT, and S. 3003, the COST of War Act, which would:

  • Grant permanent access to VA health care for any veteran who suffered toxic exposures while in service, regardless of their service-connected disability claim status.
  • Establish a list of presumptive disabilities for post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other environmental hazards.
  • Ensure VA adopts a framework to establish new presumptive disabilities in a timely manner based on scientific data for all toxic exposures, regardless of era or location.
  • Concede exposure to burn pits and other environmental hazards for veterans who served in areas where they are known to have been used. This will assist them when filing claims for exposure-related conditions that are not presumptive.
  • Improve training for VA personnel on toxic exposure-related illnesses and require a toxic exposure questionnaire at the beginning of every VA primary care appointment.

For more on these legislative proposals and to track their progress, click here.

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, pmoulden@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.7910

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Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

 

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