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As Biden touts burn pit bill, vets say it doesn’t go far enough

(NewsNation) — As President Joe Biden on Friday took a victory lap for legislation that expands benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins during service, NewsNation found veterans are still struggling to receive treatment and are running out of time.

Veterans and advocates breathed a sigh of relief when Biden signed the PACT Act in August.

The law helps veterans get screened for exposure to toxins. Those include Agent Orange, which was used for deforestation during the Vietnam War, and burn pits, where trash was destroyed on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to the screenings, the law directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that some respiratory illnesses and cancers are connected to burn pits. This allows veterans to receive disability benefits without needing to prove direct causation.

After more than a decade of fighting, the hope was that these struggling members of the U.S. armed services would get the treatment they so desperately needed.

But veterans — including vets who personally led the effort to get the PACT Act passed — told NewsNation they are not getting the treatment they need right now, and for many, their lives depend on it.

“It’s a difficult process,” said Leroy Torres, who is suffering from toxic burn pit exposure.

When Torres, an Army veteran, returned to Washington, D.C., last month to celebrate the first Veteran’s Day with the PACT Act in place, the last place he wanted to end up was back at Veterans Affairs (VA).

“There were a lot of questions and the PACT Act, that type of care wasn’t even mentioned, so I had to start over and retell the story,” he said.

They call it the war that followed them home.

Torres was exposed to burn pits in Iraq, large holes in the ground where everything from hazardous waste to Humvees to human feces gets thrown in, doused with jet fuel and burned around the clock.

Ever since, Torres and his wife Rosie have faced endless trips to the VA and have been given few answers.

“Even going back home, I already made an appointment with the VA,” Torres said. “But it’s like now we gotta start with the primary care doctor. And that’s still going to take time.”

Rosie Torres said time isn’t on their side and is pleading with the VA to stop delaying or denying her husband treatment. And if they can’t do it, she said, the two will look to other hospitals for support.

“I don’t want him to be that missed opportunity,” Rosie Torres said, “had we only referred him to Mayo or got the right GI team onboard.”

Rosie has been leading the charge in Congress for decades to raise awareness about her husband and the more than 3 million veterans exposed to burn pits.

Comedian Jon Stewart, an outspoken advocate for military veterans, has been by her side.

“We’ve lost a lot of friends along the way. It’s not — it’s relief without celebration to a certain extent,” Stewart said.

Advocates say while the PACT Act addresses compensation for veterans, it doesn’t include clinical guidelines or a health care program similar to the 911 health care plan.

They’re calling for more specialized care to ensure the veterans are properly diagnosed and screened.

“I had to lead the person through this and sort of explain to them why this was relevant and I followed with the VA to ask them, ‘OK, what’s the next step,'” said Bob Carey, a Navy veteran and advocate with the National Defense Committee. “They really don’t seem to know.”

Carey recently got a screening for exposure to toxins and told NewsNation he was left in the dark.

He believes it’s going to take more oversight from Congress to make sure the VA is following through on everything it promised.

“I’m saying to myself, this is 2022, this is not 1822,” he said. “Exposure to toxic substances is nothing new.

Not everyone has been given a chance to fight for better treatment.

Staff Sgt. Fred Brazel was on active duty and got cancer from the burn pits.

Brazel died from Stage IV rectal cancer, which had metastasized in the liver due to Defense Department providers allegedly misdiagnosing his cancer and delaying treatment.

Beau Biden, the president’s eldest son, served as a major in the Delaware National Guard. He died of brain cancer in 2015, and the president has suggested that exposure to burn pits on his base in Iraq may have been the cause.

On Friday, Biden touted the expanded health care benefits of the PACT Act.

“I made it real clear to the United States Congress, if they didn’t pass this damn burn pit bill, I was going to go on holy war. Not a joke,” Biden said. “It’s one of the most significant laws in our history to help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service.”

Biden urged veterans to sign up for the benefits, get screened and submit their claims.

More than 185,000 veterans have applied and more than 730,000 have been screened.

NewsNation reached out to the VA, told them about veterans’ concerns and is waiting to hear back.

Veterans advocates tell NewsNation they are working with Congress and the VA to raise awareness about better screening tools and technology to diagnose veterans properly — adding there is no time to waste.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.