Metro East veteran exposed to burn pits in Iraq grateful for passage of PACT Act

(Ret.) Staff Sergeant Dale Francis was nearing the end of his career with the Army when September 11, 2001 changed everything.
Published: Aug. 22, 2022 at 5:22 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) -A retired Metro East Army veteran is grateful for a $280 billion measure passed by Congress this week aimed at expanding healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances on deployment.

The Senate voted Tuesday night to pass the bipartisan legislation. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill within the next week.

The final vote was 86-11. Missouri Senators Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt initially voted “no,” then reversed course this week.

A spokesperson for Senator Hawley sent News 4 the following statement:

“Senator Hawley supports the PACT Act and voted for final passage of the legislation both times it came before the Senate, first in June and again this past week. Senator Hawley supported additional time for bipartisan negotiations, and is pleased that a strong bill to deliver health care for veterans ultimately got across the finish line. He will continue to advocate for our nation’s veterans in the Senate.”

The bill is officially referred to as the “Honoring our PACT Act,” and was approved by the House in July. It could impact coverage of nearly 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic substances.

(Ret.) SSG. Dale Francis lives in Troy, Illinois, and spent 20 years in the Army. His career was coming to an end shortly before September 11, 2001, when he decided he wasn’t done serving.

“I’m glad I went, I really am, it was a good mission, at least to begin with,” he said.

He deployed to Kuwait in early 2003, before entering into Iraq about a month later. He and his soldiers headed for what would become Camp Victory in south Baghdad.

“It was on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces surrounded by water,” he said. “We brought tents with us, set up a mess hall but there were no bathrooms.”

As a result, makeshift outhouses were created consisting of wooden stalls. Underneath sat a oil barrel that had been cut in half. Francis said every morning, he oversaw a group of soldiers responsible for removing the barrels and burning the contents with diesel or gasoline.

“They had to stand there and stir that horrible mix until it all burned down,” he said.

Francis said classified documents, plastic bottles and medical waste was all burned across camps. When he returned home a year later, it wasn’t long before he developed a nagging cough.

“I went to a civilian ear, nose and throat specialist and he took one look up in my sinuses and said, ‘oh my, where did all of this come from?’”

He then went to the VA, where a chest x-ray was clear. Francis said that didn’t surprise him, as the majority of damage was done to his sinuses. He was prescribed anti-histamines and a rescue inhaler.

“They’re trying to do something about this, but this is something new for them,” he said.

He’s hopeful the passage of the PACT Act will help fellow veterans get the healthcare and benefits they deserve, years after being exposed to toxic fumes.

“We didn’t have any masks or anything to protect us, so, we burned it and breathed it,” he said.

Before the legislation, veterans were forced to prove their illnesses were connected to the exposure on deployment. Francis said it can be difficult to establish a paper trail early on.

“When you’re in Iraq somewhere or out in the desert in Kuwait there’s no army clinic, there’s no where to go on sick call so there’s nothing in your medical records that says you had this problem over there,” he said.

Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth voted in favor of the legislation.

A spokesperson for Senator Durbin sent News 4 a statement that reads in part:

“When Americans sign up to serve our country in the military, we promise that we will not leave them behind. The Senate honored our veterans’ service today with the passage of the PACT Act, which will give new hope to veterans suffering from the effects of toxic exposure during their time on the battlefield. For more than 3.5 million veterans, this vote will mean a chance at a healthier life. I look forward to seeing President Biden swiftly sign the PACT Act into law.”