The U.S. Senate has approved a bill with bipartisan support that would expand Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare services to millions of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals while serving overseas.

While adding coverage for soldiers exposed to toxins like Agent Orange as far back as the Vietnam War, the centerpiece of the legislation is coverage for illnesses stemming from open-air burn pits in combat zones.

According to VA estimates, some 3.5 million veterans were exposed to fumes from the pits during the War on Terror. Among them is Victor Latson, a Marietta resident and 18-year Air Force veteran who served at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base in 2008.

Latson, a technical specialist who worked on Air Force planes, said his sleeping quarters were about a quarter-mile from the base’s burn pit, where tires, papers, fuel, and other waste was burned — the smoke from which freely floated through the air.

Two years later, Latson was hospitalized in Germany with what doctors initially believed was congestive heart failure. He was ultimately diagnosed with pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissue that lines the lungs, which caused a sharp pain every time Latson breathed in. The ailment has stayed with him ever since.

“I remember a time I was sitting with my family in the living room, and I got up to use the bathroom, and it felt like I had a cramp in my lungs,” Latson said. “It literally stopped me in my tracks. The pain was so excruciating.

“I was trying to laugh because my whole family was there … So I’m trying to pretend like the pain wasn’t as intense as it was, and so I’m literally laughing and crying at the same time.”

The issue flared up again this January, with Latson “praying that (he) wasn’t going to die” as he was confined to his apartment for a month.

Despite his years of service, Latson’s had problems getting adequate care through the VA since he retired. Some of his conditions were covered, but a bronchitis claim was initially deferred, and then denied, as the VA said it couldn’t prove a link between the condition and burn pit exposure.

That’s set to change, should President Joe Biden sign the “Honoring our PACT Act” (Biden himself has said he believes his son Beau’s brain cancer may have been caused by burn pit exposure overseas). The burn pit provisions would ensure veterans suffering from nearly two dozen illnesses associated with exposure are automatically covered, sparing former service members from navigating through further red tape.

The bill carried in the Senate 84-14, and returns to the House for final approval. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the expansion of care is projected to cost some $280 billion over 10 years.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, who supported the bill, told the MDJ the measure is a “long overdue” step toward shoring up veterans’ care.

“This is a case in which the regulations and the framework for determining eligibility have not caught up to the reality of what veterans are suffering over the last 20 or so years,” Warnock said. “…The onus should not be on them to get the care they need. The onus should be on us to provide it, and the Honoring our PACT Act does just that.”

— The New York Daily News contributed to this report.

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