Battle Over Burn Pits: Vet benefits finally on the way but fires still burning

Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 6:35 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 29, 2022 at 7:12 PM EST
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Military members who have been fighting the government for medical and other benefits could get them as soon as this Sunday. Starting Jan. 1, the PACT Act takes effect, granting veterans exposed to burn pits in war zones health care coverage and disability payments they didn’t qualify for before. The new law provides the money to do so.

WCAX News first told you about these burn pits making soldiers sick. We saw our military members working and living near these pits when we joined them in the war zone. Now, they may have won their battle over burn pits, though we’ve uncovered that those fires still burn.

“We all had a lot of pride coming back as a veteran,” Danny Pinsonault said.

Pinsonault wears his military hat like a badge of honor.

“As corny as it is, it’s my duty,” he said.

Pinsonault is a proud and decorated vet who rose through the ranks to first sergeant over his 30-year military career. And when duty called, he was ready to serve, deploying to Kuwait in 2003, where he and his fellow engineers set up camps leading into Iraq as part of the global war on terror.

“You do what you swore to do,” he said.

Pinsonault led nearly 150 men and women there and brought every one of them home from war. The Dorset man brought something else home, too: brain cancer.

“Which is a real tough one to deal with,” he said.

Doctors first detected it about a year ago. When they did, they were shocked by its size. It was nearly 20 years after Pinsonault’s deployment but his physician identified the cause right away as burn pits in the war zone.

“Not knowing there was a hidden enemy,” Pinsonault said.

Now, the war vet is in the fight of his life, undergoing surgeries, radiation and another round of chemotherapy at the Foley Cancer Center in Rutland. His wife, Sandy, and fellow vet Garry DuFour bring him to his appointments.

“I get emotional,” DuFour said. “But I’m going to be there for him.”

But Pinsonault knows it’s a losing battle; he’s dying.

“They told us the worst news,” Sandy Pinsonault said. “Our lives changed from that moment on.”

Doctors gave him three to four months to live.

“They’re giving us the best possible treatment but in the back of their minds know where it all is going to finish, and it’s going to finish with a death, with my death,” Danny Pinsonault said.

“The scope of it and what we were facing and what came from exposure to the burn pits, I think we’re just now realizing that,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, who leads the Vermont National Guard.

Knight has seen first-hand the devastating effects of burn pits. He himself got asthma, and many of his men and women are sick or died, including Sgt. Maj. Mike Cram and the number two at the Guard, Brig. Gen. Mike Heston.

“I could give you a dozen names off the top of my head of colleagues who have passed far too early from aberrant disease, lung cancer, brain cancer,” Knight said. “It’s not normal.”

We saw these burn pits when WCAX News embedded with the Vermont National Guard in Afghanistan. The massive, open-air trash fires burned all day and all night.

“They burned everything,” Knight said. “Tires, paint, lumber, medical waste, feces: everything went into that burn pit. That’s how you got rid of stuff.”

Soldiers breathed in the smoke that hung over the bases, and breathed it in again after it settled.

“That gets stirred up by vehicles and the constant wind we experienced,” Knight explained.

But for years, the Veterans Administration denied most claims by military members who said the burn pits made them sick, soldiers like Wes Black who died of colon cancer. The VA and the Department of Defense argued more studies were needed first.

“I think there was a resistance because they didn’t want to pay for it,” said Senator-elect Peter Welch, D-Vermont. “They were told, ‘You can’t prove this is service-connected’ ... It’s much like how our Vietnam vets had to fight about Agent Orange.”

Welch spent years in Congress trying to get legislation passed to force the VA to cover burn pit exposure. This year, with bipartisan support, the president signed the PACT Act which drastically expands health care and other benefits to vets. Now, a range of cancers and respiratory sicknesses are automatically covered for military members who served near the pits.

Some 200,000 vets have already applied under the PACT Act. The VA starts processing claims on Jan. 1, though claims from 2,500 terminally ill vets began being processed a couple of weeks ago.

Reporter Darren Perron: Is the VA prepared to handle the number of claims that could come in as a result of the PACT Act?

Brett Rusch/VA: We will be... This is a long-term process. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

The VA admits a surge of initial claims will increase backlogs, but they’re hiring staff to get those claims processed as quickly as possible.

“We’re going to make a big difference for a lot of people,” Rusch said. “That wasn’t true before.”

Vets previously denied benefits, even those unsure if they were exposed to burn pits, are now encouraged to apply.

“What the VA is essentially going to say now in many of those, if not most cases is you’re presumed to have been exposed,” Rusch said. “It actually makes me proud to get directly to the business of taking care of veterans and skip all the questions and make them prove it to be the case.”

That’s a major shift in the VA’s position on burn pits. They even launched a massive outreach program.

“People think this is a seismic change,” Rusch said.

But what the PACT Act does not do, is end the use of burn pits in war zones. Our investigation revealed there are seven active burn pits still in operation.

Welch says putting those fires out is a top priority this coming session.

“The burn pits are being closed down aggressively but many of us in Congress want them closed down completely,” Welch said.

“If you’re going to do a job, do it. And do it safely. And that’s where they let us down,” Danny Pinsonault said.

Pinsonault says he has no regrets about serving his country. And his final mission is to get as many vets as possible signed up for benefits under the PACT Act.

“There are a lot of people affected by this,” he said.

He and Sandy just celebrated their 40th anniversary. They know their 41st isn’t likely.

“I’m not afraid to be alone but I’m afraid for him... I don’t want him to suffer,” Sandy said. “I’m more angry that I won’t have any more time.”

Because of his terminal illness, Danny Pinsonault is one of the veterans who is now getting retirement pay and 100% disability from the VA. They are waiting to hear how much his wife, Sandy, will get through the PACT Act after he passes.

Veterans can learn more about the PACT Act and file claims at

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Battle Over Burn Pits, Part 2

Battle Over Burn Pits, Part 1