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Largest expansion of benefits for veterans still leaves people out

Posted at 1:33 PM, Aug 22, 2022

Burn pit is a term used to describe huge piles of burning jet fuel, tires and other toxic materials usually on or near U.S. military bases overseas. For years, service members who worked or lived near them have been getting sick, but the government didn’t formerly cover preventative care for these illnesses. A new law will change that, but the fight isn't over.

Doug Wilson is a veteran who was deployed to Karshi-Khanabad, also known as K-2 or Camp Stronghold Freedom. He says he got there in November of 2001, shortly after 9/11.

"I mean, I put my body on the line and here I am now," Wilson said. "I'm 42 years old, stuck in a wheelchair. I don't work anymore."

K-2 is an old Soviet airbase located about 100 miles north of the Afghanistan border. Environmental reports that were declassified in 2020 show military members were exposed to things like jet fuel, depleted uranium, asbestos, and lead-based paint. The Stronghold Freedom Foundation says K-2 veterans have been dying from rare diseases and cancers. Natalie White is a surviving spouse who lost her husband, Clayton White, in 2018 to what she believes was a K-2-related illness.

"He was getting gastroenteritis, diverticulitis coli, cystitis, prostatitism," White said.

Many veterans who have served at K-2 say they would do it again. The issue is that they're not receiving the care they feel entitled to after serving the country.

"Uzbekistan, the K-2 base, I understand why it had to be put where it was, where they had to go in in defense of our country in reaction to 9/11," White said. "But we also have there was also a responsibility to take care of those men and women that you sacrificed and sent there."

For more than 20 years, veterans like White and their families have been struggling to get health care coverage. President Biden recently signed the PACT Act into law, expanding health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn bits.

"I was very happy, especially after reading through it and my conditions were listed in that PACT Act," Wilson said. "We could afford to make the house a bit more handicap-friendly now."

Wilson, who has gone through two brain surgeries and a stem cell transplant, says he finally qualifies for care.

However, White isn't so sure she and her daughter will since her husband already passed and his illnesses weren't recognized before he died.

"I do have concerns since he's not covered, none of his illnesses were listed, that we won't be eligible for care," White said.

She says this law is a great start, but there's still work to be done to ensure all toxic-exposed veterans and their families get the care they deserve.

"Twenty years of suffering, 20 years of death," White said. "And there are people out there who know what they were exposed to but don't know what to tell their physicians. And I think that we need to do better and be better and treat our veterans better."

"There's a lot of us that have lost our livelihoods because of the stuff we've gone through," Wilson said. "And so, yeah, it would be nice to get some recognition for that."