courtesy of Rafael Rivera
Army veteran Rafael Rivera hasn’t always given much thought to his future or his health, especially while on patrol in southern Afghanistan, smoking cigarettes while deployed there for 13 months from May 2010.
“Having made your last will and testament three times by the time you’re 20, you don’t have long-term thinking,” Rivera said.
When he returned from Afghanistan, Rivera focused on his health, quitting smoking and changing his diet. He also started teaching yoga. Despite these efforts, he said he never began to feel healthy.
“A year has passed without having smoked a cigarette. And like, ‘I’m still spitting this (expletive),'” said Rivera, who was a mechanic and driver in Afghanistan. “Like, wait a minute, two years pass and I’m still fighting?”
Like millions of soldiers, Rivera was exposed to open waste pits burned with jet fuel, which is a known carcinogen. Now he is out of breath from a seemingly simple exercise; his doctors tell him he has constrictive bronchiolitis.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs routinely denies the vast majority of claims for a long list of cancers and other illnesses linked to toxic exposure. It took 50 years for the VA to come to terms with all the conditions caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam, and history is repeating itself, said pulmonologist Dr Anthony Szema.
“It puts all the soldiers who actually have constrictive bronchiolitis in a quagmire – that they will never be diagnosed and they will never be treated,” Szema said.
Szema, who directs the International Center of Excellence in Deployment Health and Medical Geosciences, says he’s glad the Biden administration has added new illnesses to the list of VA diagnoses related to hotspots. Biden added several more during his first State of the Union address this month, but at this piecemeal pace, Szema said many vets will die of cancer before the VA does. accept their complaints.
“Soldiers have a ticking time bomb that will gradually get worse over time,” he said.
The House of Representatives passed a bill this month to change that; the Honoring our PACT Act would require the VA to accept 23 illnesses as “presumptive,” meaning any veterinarian who has been exposed to burn outbreaks and other known toxins would automatically get benefits and treatment for those illnesses.
Thirty-four Republicans joined all House Democrats in passing the bill, but Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., the senior member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, opposed the bill. bill, calling it too broad and too expensive.
“I’m a veteran from a military family. My son and my grandson are currently serving,” Bost said. “I know what war costs. I also know that veterans also pay taxes.”
Bost also pointed to strong Republican opposition in the tightly divided Senate, where a much more limited bill enjoys bipartisan support.
Speaking in Fort Worth, Texas on Tuesday, President Biden endorsed the PACT Act and Senate measure, which veterans’ advocates fear will exhaust momentum on the burning fireplace issue without fully attack the 3.5 million veterans who have been exposed to it since the first Gulf War.
A long wait
While the debate continues, healthy young veterans are suffering from rare cancers.
“I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in January 2018,” said Kate Hendricks Thomas. She was only 38, but after serving as a Marine in Iraq, she said her VA doctor urged her to have a mammogram.
“The cancer had spread all over my body, which means it had been growing for a very long time,” Thomas said. “So I had skeletal metastases from skull to toes. My radiologist said it looked like I had been immersed in something.”
Courtesy of Kate Hendricks Thomas
Thomas began to plan for a short future. She recently ended her career as a professor of public health at Charleston Southern University.
“I loved what I did,” she said. “I really mourned the loss of that career. I worked so hard to get there.”
Thomas said she fought with the VAs for three years to get them to recognize that her cancer was service-related. This struggle took precious time to enjoy life with her husband and young son, time said she would never return.
“I know I don’t have much time left,” she said. “I accept that reality, but I’m just trying to preserve the quality of life so that I can be a parent and enjoy people for as long as possible.”
She said the VA service connection decision means her family will receive a small pension from the VA when she dies, but her hope is the laws will change so other veterans can get care and benefits. from the VA earlier than her.