Families of war veterans tell PEOPLE how the Honoring Our PACT Act will minimize the roadblocks that they have faced in the past for treatment of conditions related to toxic exposure from burn pits.
Amy Antioho, a military spouse from Connecticut who lost her husband to cancer traced back to burn pits, says war veterans need the expanded health benefits granted in the PACT Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Wednesday.
"We realized that this could be related to his exposure to burn pits, to toxic exposure in Afghanistan. We submitted a claim to the VA. It was denied," Antioho tells PEOPLE. "So I gathered more evidence, I gathered it, lots and lots of evidence, and it was still denied, despite having a letter from a doctor at the VA stating that his cancer was at least as likely as not to be from his toxic exposures."
"And so at that point I reached out, I had been working with Sen. Blumenthal's office, and I reached out and it took him making a phone call to the secretary of the VA to say, 'Hey, do the right thing,' which I'm very grateful for," she adds. "But it shouldn't have had to happen. And I hope that for families that are going through this, because there are a lot, and there will be more, that this bill will help them not have to fight cancer, and fight the VA and fight for time with their families."
Antioho elaborated on what the signing of the bill means to her personally.
"It was about giving hope to the families going through this and if telling our story can do that, then that's what I'm going to do. I mean, obviously, it's too late for us, it's not going to bring Peter back. But he tasked me with this mission to tell our story, to help others, to say, 'This is not okay,'" she explains.
"And I really want to stress that veterans deserve this. They earned this. And Peter, in particular, felt like he was begging. And that's not okay. Our nation's heroes should not feel like they are begging for what they earn," she adds.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty President Biden at the PACT Act signing
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal says he had a chance to speak directly with Biden at the signing ceremony and that the moment was personal for the president.
"[Biden's] son Beau died from exactly the same disease that ended Peter's life because of exactly the same reason, and about the same age, leaving behind your children," he says. "There's so many children and families left behind. And today was about giving them a voice and some measure of closure, but also a path forward."
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Jessey Baca, U.S. veteran, tells PEOPLE that the singing of the bill into law was a relief for veterans and their family members.
"What a relief. What a relief. That's probably the biggest way I could say it. Now hopefully veterans won't have such large obstacles to get over," he says, referring to how the previous requirement to prove burn pits directly caused their condition has been a major obstacle for veterans.
"Every veteran has to prove his case. Everybody's an individual. Yeah, we look the same. We act the same, but it's not. Everybody's an individual. So, if it lowered the obstacles, I think it'll be a good thing," he says.
Baca shared how the new legislation, which connects 23 cancers and respiratory conditions to burn pits, impacts him personally.
"My personal story is we hit every roadblock you could think of. And with that in mind, we had that education that we were able to help develop this back then. And I think it will save a lot of people," he says. "A lot of the illnesses, this is the biggest part, are unrecognizable. People getting out, you can't prove it. That's what made it so tough, because it's all so new. But now that it's gotten momentum and the ball is rolling, I think we're going to be in good shape."
June Heston's late husband, Michael, a veteran, passed away from a rare pancreatic cancer before the passage of the burn pits bill. He told local media in 2018 that his condition was related to toxins he inhaled from burn pits.
Heston says she first became involved with the burn pits issue when the Vermont legislature was proposing burn pit legislation.
"Once that happened, I felt like we needed to do something bigger so I joined the TEAM coalition and it was over 50 veterans organizations and nonprofits who came together to draft legislation," she says.
She explains what Biden's signing of federal burn pits legislation means to her personally.
"It was amazing. It was sort of full circle after fighting for so many years trying to get national federal legislation passed for veterans," she shares. "It felt like all of this time and effort and the fight has been worth it."
Patricia Cram, whose husband served in Afghanistan, died of cancer connected to toxins from burn pits.
"To be in that room with people you know were going through the same exact feelings that you've been going through makes you feel not so lonely," she says. "I was so proud and honored to be there but I really wish I hadn't had to be there."
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis Richard McDonough told reporters that the journey is not over for veterans in need of care for illnesses related to burn pits as his agency focuses on implementation of the new legislation.
"It's obviously a really important way station on a long journey. The journey is not yet done though, because we got to execute this," he said. "I'm really grateful for the president, for the [House] speaker, Mr. Takano [Congressman], Dr. Ruiz [Congressman], everybody who made this possible. But I also know that my other reaction is I know we have a lot of work to do. So that's what I'm focused on."
McDonough encouraged veterans suffering from conditions covered in the legislation to come forward.
"We want vets to go ahead and file their claims and that's going to be important data for us to get to the bottom of what's happening," he said.
McDonough recalled Biden telling him to prepare for passage of the legislation last year. McDonough said his department hired more than 2,000 claim processors and they're currently in the process of training.
"Anybody who knows President Biden, has listened to President Biden, knows what a family person he is ... I think a great leader is somebody who listens and somebody who is willing to fight," he said. "And you heard it today, Susan, Sargent Robinson's mother-in-law, and the president were talking about a time when they met at a book signing years ago. And she said that the president understood the issue and she didn't have to convince him. So that's listening."