FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- Veterans and their advocates across the nation are celebrating a hard-won victory that expands healthcare access for service members exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits.
The senate passed the PACT Act late Tuesday helping veterans impacted by the pits. The bill formally connects almost two dozen cancers and respiratory illnesses to burn pit exposure and automatically grants necessary care to veterans.
Leaders in the military community in Fayetteville and Fort Bragg told ABC11 that residual health effects from exposure to those burn pits while on duty is a big issue for veterans in the Sandhills region.
"Two years ago, I noticed I was was coughing a lot more. And it seems like I was spitting up chunks a lot more than before. I thought maybe I just had had the flu. But it just never went away," said Commander Jim Morris of the VFW Post 10630.
Morris said he consulted with doctors at Womack Army Medical Center to address health issues he believes stem from his exposure to burn pits. Despite this, he said he has struggled to get the care he needs.
He said he was exposed to the burn pits while he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says never had a history of respiratory illness prior to his time in the service, and can still remember what it was like to be around those burn pits like it was yesterday.
"There was just a constant smell in the air that you could almost never get away from. No matter where you were. And in the vicinity of the town, there was always an odor," Morris said.
Burn pits were used by the military throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to eliminate waste. The military then saying it was the safest, most practical way to protect soldiers from enemy forces by keeping soldiers on post while discarding materials like chemicals, human waste and petroleum. However, outcry from veterans sparked concerns that fumes from those burn pits were leading to cancers and respiratory illnesses, and it helped drive the passage of the PACT Act.
Morris said he's glad to see this major milestone in healthcare for him and his fellow servicemembers, but he is still worried for his future.
"I would like to live a long life...as healthy as possible," Morris said. "I don't want to end up in a wheelchair. I don't want to end up carrying an oxygen bottle around with me. And so yeah, I'm highly concerned."
President Biden is expected to sign the bill on Monday.