NBC Washington: Deployed Then Denied: Veterans Fight for Benefits After Toxic Exposure

by Jodie Fleischer, Katie Leslie, Steve Jones and Jeff Piper

More than a decade after serving in Iraq, Kate Hendricks Thomas was just 38 and married with a young son when a military nurse suggested she get an early mammogram.

Kate, who served at Camp Fallujah with the Marines in 2005, recalled telling the nurse she didn’t think she needed one until her 40s.

“‘Based on where you’ve been stationed, I want you to do it sooner,'” Kate recounted the nurse practitioner saying. “No one had ever told me that I had elevated risk factors.”

That screening uncovered a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer that, at Stage 4, had already spread throughout her body. Kate, who had no family history of breast cancer, soon discovered her most concerning risk factor was toxic exposure from massive piles of trash, debris and medical waste burned on her base in Iraq.

She later learned the only other woman from her unit stationed with her at Camp Fallujah had been diagnosed with the same form of breast cancer. That woman declined to speak on the record with the News4 I-Team because she’s still on active duty.

“I was shocked,” Kate said. “I don’t regret my service in any way. I just didn’t think that cancer was one of the things I was risking.”

In the years since her diagnosis in 2018, the former military police officer has been fighting a different battle: undergoing grueling treatments to slow the spread of her terminal disease while fighting to have her condition recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as connected to her military service.

Under the current rules, veterans can collect disability and get free healthcare through the VA when their injury or illness is connected to their military service. But proving that connection can be challenging, especially when a condition develops years later.

Despite having a letter from a VA oncologist saying Kate’s breast cancer was “as likely as not caused by her time in Iraq,” the VA repeatedly denied her claim for disability benefits.

“It’s infuriating,” said Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Injuries from toxic exposures and burn pits are the most widespread, by far, health impact from the Post-9/11 generation.”

He said stories like Kate’s are common among IAVA’s roughly 425,000 members, who are routinely surveyed about their health.

IAVA’s surveys indicate more than 80 percent who faced toxic exposure during service report health impacts from cancers to asthma, he said, but eight out of 10 who try to get healthcare and disability benefits for those injuries are turned down.

That figure is echoed by September 2020 congressional testimony from a VA official who said that from June 2007 through July 2020, only 23 percent of 12,582 veterans who filed claims related to burn pit exposures were granted service connections for conditions specifically related to burn pit exposure.

“There are so many service members suffering from a wide variety of exposures and illnesses from those exposures,” Porter said. “We need to take care of all of them.”

Now, new legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill could make it easier for many veterans with toxic exposures to get healthcare and disability benefits.

“If we’re going to have people willing to sign up to serve this country, we’ve got to make sure we take care of them when they come back home,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who heads the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and introduced the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act.

But the effort faces an uphill battle in a divided Senate and isn’t likely to cover all of the conditions reported by veterans who say their service led to sickness.

Tester’s legislation, which passed out of committee with bipartisan support in late May, would expand healthcare for access to the estimated 3.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were at risk of toxic exposure during their service.

It would also make it easier for veterans with certain toxic exposure-related illnesses to collect disability, but only for the 13 specific conditions currently listed in the Senate bill, such as asthma, emphysema or glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

Breast and other reproductive cancers, like Kate’s, however, are not among them.

“We put the things in the bill that we felt the science backed up. And that will continue to grow as research continues,” Tester told the I-Team.

A House version of the bill, introduced by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), includes two dozen categories of illnesses, including breast and other reproductive cancers. It has also passed out of committee.

Tester said the final list will likely land somewhere in between the House and Senate measures and told the I-Team he’d welcome the inclusion of breast and other reproductive cancers if the science shows a correlation.

The added healthcare coverage would enable veterans to get earlier and more regular screenings to detect exposure-related illnesses sooner. Tester said the bills also direct the VA, which for now has a voluntary registry to track exposure-related conditions, to further study the link between illnesses and toxic exposure.

Though the House bill is likely to sail through, Tester is expecting more of a fight in the 50-50 Senate, where some GOP members are questioning how to pay for the added costs of providing healthcare for potentially millions more veterans.

“We’re getting a lot of pushback on the cost, and, look, I’m concerned about the cost, too. We still don’t know what the cost of this is going to be,” he said, adding that he’s awaiting cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and the VA.

Porter, with the veterans association, said this legislation is critically important as the country approaches the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

“We’ve got a lot of members of Congress that are going to be waving that flag, and they’re going to be using that hashtag #neverforget,” he said. “We’re going to be telling them: Don’t you complain about costs when we’ve been deploying for 20 years in these wars. You sent us there, and that’s the cost of war.”

As for Kate, after her initial claim and two subsequent appeals were denied, the VA finally granted her full disability claim in recent days, linking her breast cancer to toxic exposure during her service.

“It feels like a total miracle and makes me so glad I kept fighting,” she told the I-Team, explaining the coverage makes it easier to afford any medical costs and save for her son’s future.

But she said it shouldn’t be so hard for veterans to get the services they need and hopes Congress will expand the list of “presumptive” conditions to ease the fight for others.

“Think about the fact that these are real people with lives and families,” she implored. “Don’t leave people behind.”