After being exposed to burn pit toxins, Pennsylvania’s veterans are finally getting help - TAI News
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Veterans Chris Yarnell and Freddie Reed join U.S. Sen. Bob Casey at the VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall on April 8, 2024. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

When Freddie Reed was deployed in Iraq between 2007 and 2009, he and his fellow soldiers regularly conducted missions around a giant burn pit in the city of Mosul.

At the time, the Lehigh Valley resident and his colleagues didn’t think much of the pit, a place where tires, chemical mixtures, human waste, and more were burned. Rather, as the smoke wafted around them, they focused on their work, Reed said.

“You’re constantly inhaling all those chemicals and tires and everything else that they had in those burn pits,” Reed told the Pennsylvania Independent on Monday.

The Military Times notes that burn pits were commonly used in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas locations until the mid-2010s in order to get rid of waste from military bases. The publication also points out that an estimated 3.5 million military members have been exposed to burn pit smoke.

The burn pits have been linked to a long list of medical conditions among veterans, including cancer, asthma, emphysema, and other debilitating and fatal diseases.

However, as veterans’ health worsened when they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs regularly rejected their burn pit exposure claims. For years, veterans struggled as they tried to get the government to cover their medical costs.

Then, in 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Acts, or PACT Act, which expands medical benefits for former service members who had been exposed to burn pit toxins — something that the president has said he believes caused his son Beau’s death from brain cancer. The bill was introduced by Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California and co-sponsored by 97 Democrats and three Republicans. It passed with bipartisan support.

Now, about 795,000 veterans nationwide are receiving PACT Act-related benefits, and people like Reed and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey are working to grow that number. Reed, the director of veterans outreach for a Lehigh Valley-based nonprofit called Battle Borne, noted he wasn’t aware of the PACT Act until about a week ago and plans to submit a claim soon.

Veteran Freddie Reed speaks about the PACT Act at the VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall on April 8, 2024.
Veteran Freddie Reed speaks about the PACT Act at the VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall on April 8, 2024. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

Reed joined fellow veterans to welcome Casey to the Lehigh Valley on Monday, when the senator spoke about the PACT Act at VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall.

“Getting the word out is critical because a lot of veterans waited a long time for this and some still are learning about it,” Casey said in a one-on-one interview with the Pennsylvania Independent following his remarks at the VFW. “So we want to make sure that we publicize it.

“But, look, for a lot of veterans, it was too late by the time this bill passed after it was debated for years,” Casey continued. “A lot of veterans died without access to this health care who should have had this years ago.”

Currently about 20,000 veterans in Pennsylvania are receiving PACT Act-related benefits, Casey said. The Pennsylvania Independent reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs to confirm this number but did not hear back as of press time.

“We should continue to make sure that every veteran who might not know about this does know about it, and those who know about it and have started the process, that they get their claims completed as fast as possible,” Casey said.

Chris Yarnell, who in 2018 founded Battle Borne with his wife, Cadence, in order to connect Lehigh Valley veterans with a range of resources, was also at the VFW on Monday and explained how crucial it is for veterans to connect with their peers about the benefits stemming from the PACT Act. Veterans, Yarnell said, are often reluctant to ask for help — even when they need it. For example, a growing number of veterans and their families are struggling with food insecurity in the Lehigh Valley, but they are unlikely to turn to food pantries for support, Yarnell said, which is why Battle Borne began distributing meals to veterans.

That hesitancy to reach out for help also applies to something like the PACT Act, Yarnell explained. However, if veterans connect with other retired military members who may originally be unwilling to apply for benefits, there’s a higher likelihood that reluctance could shift, Yarnell said.

Yarnell, who joined the Marine Corps in 1994 and served domestically, said: “If they ask for help and they’re told no, or they’re given all these resources without someone properly handing them off, there’s a really good chance that they’re not asking again. And then we wonder why the numbers are increased for mental health problems —let’s just be frank here — suicide, drug addiction, all the problems that come with, I can’t ask for help.”

Chris Yarnell, a veteran and the founder of the nonprofit Battle Borne, at the VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall on April 8, 2024.
Chris Yarnell, a veteran and the founder of the nonprofit Battle Borne, at the VFW Post 7293 in Whitehall on April 8, 2024. (Anna Gustafson / TAI News)

Whitehall Township Mayor Joe Marx, a Democrat, served in the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1991, and he echoed Yarnell’s statements. Veterans often need a push from other military members before they will ask for help, he said. But that help, he emphasized, can be life-saving.

“I have to argue with them: Please go to the VA, get looked at, get evaluated, and take your shot, because you’ve earned that,” Marx said of encouraging veterans to apply for benefits. “We send people into harm’s way; they should be treated justly when they come back.”

Casey’s stop at the Whitehall VFW comes as he campaigns for a fourth term. He is running unopposed in the April 23 Democratic Senate primary and is being challenged by Republican Dave McCormick in the November election.

McCormick frequently cites his experience in the military on the campaign trail; he is a graduate of West Point who deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991.

While Republicans are attempting to flip the seat, Casey has remained ahead of McCormick in polls throughout the campaign. The Democratic senator has centered his work for veterans during the campaign and recently launched an ad about his support for the PACT Act.

“My track record on supporting VA health care is very strong,” Casey told the Pennsylvania Independent. “And I think when it comes to a debate on veterans issues in the campaign, I think I’ll do pretty well.”

To learn more about the PACT Act, eligibility requirements and how to sign up, go to

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