Tori Seals calls her late husband, Sgt. Jeremy "Jay" Seals, a computer geek.
That geekiness served him in his job as an I.T. specialist during his time in Afghanistan, where he was exposed to burn pits. Those were smoldering piles of garbage and chemicals the U.S. military used to burn waste like petroleum, plastic and even human feces.
Later, Jay was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer. He died in 2018 at the age of 45.
"He joined the army at age 34. And so 10 years later, he’s dead,” Tori said.
Tori connects her husband's illness to those burn pits. Now, toxic exposures in the military, like Jay's, are on President Joe Biden's agenda.
The VA links burn pits to a variety of long-term illnesses involving the skin, eyes, liver, kidneys, respiratory system and central nervous system.
President Biden came to Fort Worth on Tuesday to push for greater recognition of the illnesses caused by exposure to burn pits. He toured a VA clinic and then made an appearance before a crowd at the Resource Connection of Tarrant County in southeast Fort Worth.
“When the evidence doesn’t give a clear answer one way or another, the decision we should favor is caring for our veterans while we continue to learn more," Biden said, to applause.
It can be difficult for veterans exposed to toxins to get VA benefits when they get sick, because they have to prove their illness was caused by their service. The U.S. House recently passed a bill that would take away that burden of proof for many, adding almost two dozen illnesses to a list of burn pit-related diseases.
Biden encouraged the House and Senate to agree on one version of the bill and send it to his desk for signature.
A steep hill to climb
Barriers to getting benefits can prevent some from even applying for them, including Fort Worth City Council member Elizabeth Beck. She spoke before the president on Tuesday, recalling her service in Iraq in 2005, when she’d wake up nearly every morning coughing and blowing "black matter" out of her nose.
"I would later learn that this is a symptom of being exposed to toxic smoke from the burn pit that smoldered 24 hours a day," she said.
Beck told the crowd she only started applying for her VA benefits this past November. The process seemed too daunting before.
"We've fought overseas, only to come home and wage another battle: one to have our illnesses recognized," she said. "We've waded through paperwork, we've waited on hold, just to be told the connection was too tenuous or the time too far removed."
Biden said at his Fort Worth appearance on Tuesday that the VA is also looking into the link between burn pits and certain cancers. He stressed his commitment to moving quickly and pointed out that the government is still linking new diseases to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, which was used in Vietnam.
"I refuse to repeat the mistake when it comes to the veterans of our Iraq and Afghan wars," Biden said.
The country must care for the veterans it flings into combat, Tori Seals said, where they faced both the dangers of war and of toxic exposure at the hands of the military.
"You exposed them to this. It is your moral obligation to care for those that you have damaged," she said.
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