CONNECTICUT, USA — This year has been huge in the fight for veterans' healthcare benefits, but for some, the action is still too late.
The PACT Act is now officially a law, expanding Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, agent orange, and other toxic substances.
While the law is the largest expansion of benefits in VA history, advocates said there is still more work to be done.
"We all enlisted, we all gave the United States a blank check of up to our lives," said veteran Idervan DaCosta.
For too many service members, that check is cashed years after they leave the battlefield.
"You think you're doing the right thing and unknowingly you may not be," said DaCosta.
DaCosta, of Bethel, served as a marine in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was only 21 years old at the time. His first mission was one that will never leave his mind or his lungs.
"One of the first things we did [was] we built out a huge trench and called it a burn pit and that was primarily to dispose of any waste and materials anything that could be used against us. Drench it in fuel and light it on fire," said DaCosta.
Now, back home in Connecticut, DaCosta's been diagnosed with asthma, but it may not be the only price he pays for being near the pits.
Other service members now have cancer. In some cases, it’s terminal.
"In the long term obviously you have these effects from exposure over several months of carcinogens and toxins," said DaCosta.
Those toxins killed many veterans. Men and women died for their country in their own homes, with insufficient help from the VA for years, until now.
Peter Antioho of Berlin served in Afghanistan for most of 2012. Six years later, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Glioblastoma. His son, Mark, was just two years old at the time.
"Peter was an amazing human being, I looked up to him as a friend and as a parent," said Peter's wife Amy Antioho.
Peter fought for two and a half years but ultimately lost his life in that battle back home alongside his wife, Amy.
"One of his wishes to me was, 'please keep fighting and please keep telling our story,'" said Amy.
A story Peter hoped would be heard by the VA, looking for confirmation that his cancer was caused by his time near the burn pits.
For years, he was left without benefits, tasked with proving the link himself.
And he wasn’t alone.
For over a decade, the VA rejected nearly 80% of disability claims related to burn pit exposure.
Finally, it’s catching the attention of elected officials.
"It affects probably 3.5 million or more veterans, many thousands in Connecticut, that were exposed to these toxic chemicals," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Blumenthal joined the fight with Amy in getting the PACT Act passed.
The new law expands VA healthcare benefits for service members exposed to toxic substances. Twenty additional conditions, some caused by burn pit exposure, were added to the list.
"We hope to learn from unfortunately those failures whether it's the state or federal level, the failure to recognize illnesses resulting from military service," said Thomas J. Saadi, the Connecticut State Commissioner for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Saadi said this law is a massive step forward for veterans.
"The claims are already funneling in now to the agency. There's funding to add several thousand employees to do these reviews," said Saadi.
"It's a huge weight lifted off my shoulders because now I don't have to go back and try to find proof," said DaCosta.
"It makes me feel like his death was not in vain," said Amy.
For Amy, the fight isn’t over. She’ll continue advocating for the veterans with conditions still not on the list.
A list that didn’t exist when Peter needed it most.
"I think he would say there's more work to be done, but I think he'd be really proud of me and our son. I just want him to know daddy was a hero," said Amy.
While burn pits are no longer being used, they have not been formally banned.
Sen. Blumenthal is still working in Washington to make that happen.
Veterans with one of the now covered conditions can apply for their benefits. Anyone previously denied can of course apply again.
That information can be found here.
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