Heath Robinson was a healthy 35-year-old husband and father when doctors diagnosed him with stage four adenocarcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer caused by prolonged exposure to toxins. Oncologists rarely, if ever, deal with adenocarcinoma because the vast majority of Americans thankfully never come face to face with the dangerous substances behind adenocarcinoma and other forms of cancer.
However, Robinson was not the average American. A model soldier who won the Ohio Army National Guard Soldier of the Year award not once but twice, Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2007. It was on deployment that Robinson was exposed to the burn pits — open-air trash burns that were used widely in both Iraq and Afghanistan until 2010 to dispose of trash from military bases — that almost certainly caused his cancer a full decade later.
In the years that he valiantly fought against his lung cancer, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs denied Robinson and his family necessary treatments and critical support services. The VA did not see the link between his extensive exposure to burn pits and his case of adenocarcinoma. Three years after his diagnosis, Robinson passed away, leaving his wife, Danielle, without a husband and his six-year-old daughter Brielle without a father.
To ensure her husband’s legacy lived on even after his death, Danielle Robinson took her grief and frustration to Washington, D.C. Her tireless advocacy, coupled with the work of so many others, broke through division and gridlock in Congress to pass the most significant expansion of benefits and services for toxin exposed veterans. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act is the most significant expansion of VA health care in more than 30 years.
After coming face to face with those who gave their lives to protect this country, I learned the only way we could make good on that promise is to fight relentlessly for change. I ran for public office because I knew that it was my duty to help Colorado uphold that promise, and I spent my career in the legislature fighting for veterans. As we approach Veterans Day, it is crucial that we think of November 11th not just as a holiday but as a reminder of the responsibility we all have to care for our veterans 365 days a year.
The moment President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law this August, access to health care and disability benefits for veterans harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals expanded, and the VA was newly empowered to swiftly determine whether a service member’s illness is connected to their military service.
This law also provides families that lose a loved one from exposure to toxins with life-changing financial support, meaning a surviving spouse with two children receives a monthly stipend of $2,000. Additionally, veterans and their families have better access to life insurance, home loan insurance, tuition benefits, and health care. It also lays the groundwork for new facilities, improved care, and more research into the effects of exposure to burn pits.
Like Robinson, I was deployed to Iraq and assigned to a mortuary affairs unit within the United States Marine Corps. As a mortuary affairs specialist, I spent my deployment searching for the bodies of fellow Marines and preparing their remains and personal effects to return home to their loved ones.
Unlike the fallen soldiers I cared for during my deployment, Robinson’s death is not counted as a casualty of the Iraq War, and the exposure to toxic chemicals that ultimately cost him his life does not qualify him for the same accolades and benefits provided to other members of the military injured from their service.
I, along with countless other service members, can say with confidence that the invisible injuries veterans endure in the years following their service carry equal importance to the physical wounds of warfare and that the grief that follows a casualty on the battlefield is no more devastating than the grief that comes from a death like Robinson’s.
In exchange for supporting and defending the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, this country has a sacred responsibility to ensure that service members and their families earn access to a high level of care for life.
There is no executive order or piece of legislation that can bring back those who lost their lives serving our country. However, the PACT Act is proof that we are moving closer to making good on the promises made to our veterans. As a veteran, I applaud advocates like Danielle Robinson for pushing this country to fulfill the promises made to service members and their families, and I am grateful to all the veterans’ groups and leaders that made sure the PACT Act made it across the finish line to become the law of the land.
If you are a service member, veteran, or military family member, please visit www.VA.gov/PACT to learn more about how this landmark piece of legislation could impact you.
Leroy Garcia is a 6th generation southern Coloradan, currently working as a Special Assistant for the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs in the Department of Defense. Before he was appointed by President Biden to this position, Garcia was the Democratic state senator for Colorado Senate District 3 (Pueblo County) and was elected to serve as the first Latino Senate President in Colorado’s history in 2019. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.
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