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'They have given to the country and we owe it to them': Advocates spread awareness in Geauga County for veterans impacted by toxic burn pits

Some veterans say the PACT Act is a step forward, but many are still being left behind.

CHARDON, Ohio —

Many veterans thought it was normal during their deployment. 

"I was 18. I had no clue, I just thought it was a big black burn pit," said Michele Pemberton. 

But now years later the exposure to toxins from burn pits are leaving lasting effects. 

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"My experience in Iraq and in the Balkans especially, there's a lot of burn pits, quite a few things that are burned overseas that aren't common here in the United States," said William Horne.

Horne served in the Army for 39 years, retiring as a command sergeant major. He was deployed to Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Kuwait and Colombia.  

"The Desert Storm guys were the first ones to say, 'Hey something's not right, I've got respiratory issues, my bloodwork isn't coming back right,'" Horne said. 

He said he's lucky to not have any health complications yet, but knows many who served that weren't as lucky. 

"My last three teammates from the Ranger company died of Agent Orange-presumed cancer," said Horne. 

President Biden passed the PACT Act into legislation in August, expanding health care benefits for veterans exposed to toxins, adding 23 exposure-related conditions to the coverage list. 

"Most veterans don't know the benefit that they get, the healthcare benefit they get from their service, they don't think much about it they're done with the military they've moved on," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who led a PACT Act discussion on Tuesday in Chardon. 

Many veterans however, are still unaware or uncertain of the benefits they qualify for, pushing advocates to spread awareness. 

"Unfortunately some of them are dying from the cancers or conditions that they have no idea about," said Pemberton. 

Pemberton is the director of Geauga County Veterans Services. She said the PACT Act is long overdue and is a great step forward, but there are many vets still being left behind. 

"Hopefully its just getting better, we're just going to continue adding more conditions on there," Pemberton said. "Unfortunately that means our veterans are suffering even longer and with severe disabilities." 

That includes some Geauga County veterans who said they were exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons, or others who suffered hearing loss from working in a tank that fired weapons. Those are among the other conditions that are still not included. 

"It's sad that later on in life you suffer casualties from something that you did when you were young," Horne said. 

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