SANDUSKY, Ohio — On Tuesday night, Sandusky native Danielle Robinson will take her place next to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at the State of the Union Address. But the national spotlight is never one she asked for.
“I think we’re honoring his dying wish right now, tonight,” Robinson said.
In 2020, Robinson’s husband, Heath, died from a rare form of lung cancer. He had served in Kosovo and Iraq in the early 2000s, and came home in 2007. 3News first met Danielle in the summer of 2021 to tell his story.
While he made it home safely, Heath and Danielle were unaware of what was happening inside his body.
In the spring of 2016, Heath ran a half marathon with a friend. He began training that summer ahead of an upcoming race in the fall. It was during that preparation he realized something was wrong.
“He just noticed he was fatiguing quicker, he just noticed a drastic change with him with even how he was performing with lifting and running,” Danielle said.
A trip to the doctor didn’t reveal anything unusual or wrong with Heath at the time. But in the fall of 2016, Danielle noticed tissues full of blood in their bathroom. Heath’s bloody noses persisted, and other symptoms started to appear, such as sores and voice loss.
Heath was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder, which is most prevalent in older African American women, a diagnosis his doctor found unusual. In Feb. 2017, a chest CT was ordered, revealing Heath’s swollen lymph nodes. Then, in mid-March, the Robinsons learned that the biopsy taken of Heath’s lymph node revealed non-small cell lung cancer, likely in the lungs.
“At that point, you’re just stunned. You’re trying to process,” Danielle said.
Their oncologist shared the cancer was already stage four, and that Heath only had four to six weeks to live. He also asked what Heath had been exposed to, as Heath was not a smoker.
The diagnosis came as a shock to the Robinsons. Heath started chemo and treatment immediately, determined to beat the cancer for their little girl, who was born in 2017. They also had their home tested for radon to try to figure out what Heath had been exposed to that could have caused the cancer.
The answer to their question came in the form of an article from a friend. That article talked about burn pits, football sized fields in war zones where the military burned everything from chemicals, weapons, electronics, and even body parts. The pits burned continuously and with no safety precautions for the military personnel stationed close by.
After the reading the article, Danielle asked Heath about his experience with burn pits. He shared that he had been near burn pits in both Iraq and Kosovo.
“He volunteered for a guard duty mission while he was there of Saddam’s palace, and it put him near a burn pit,” Danielle said.
From that point on, Danielle started digging in, reading and researching about burn pits and the impact they can have on those nearby.
“You go through a lot of different emotions. So right away you’re shocked and you’re dumbfounded and you’re kind of processing what they did to our soldiers over there. Because we have the EPA here for a reason, we’re not allowed to burn trash in our backyards,” Danielle said. “If we’re protecting ourselves at home, why aren’t we protecting our soldiers, even when they’re not at home? When they’re on these bases and they’re around the world?”
Still on active duty at the time of his diagnosis, Heath was covered by TRICARE, the military’s health care program. Danielle says her husband received excellent treatment. But by 2019, with his cancer progressing, Heath could no longer fulfill his duties, and had to medically separate from the National Guard. That’s when the Robinsons started to see his treatments delayed – and even denied.
Heath ultimately passed away in 2020.
“You don’t sign up for poisoning,” Danielle said of service men and women. “You sign up for getting shot or you sign up for maybe a bomb exploding, an IED. But you don’t sign up for getting poisoned by your own government.”
If passed, House Bill 3967, the landmark “Honoring our PACT Act of 2021” would secure benefits and primary care for any soldier who served in any of the countries where burn pits were maintained, and who contracted one or more of the qualifying illnesses. It would cover veterans dating back to 1991 and Operation Desert Storm, through America’s most recent post-9/11 conflicts.
The most significant portion of the bill would require the Veterans Affairs Department recognize that all troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to poisonous emissions from burn pits and other airborne hazards during deployments.
To date, over 240,000 veterans have signed up for the VA's burn pit registry but 70% of burn pit claims have been denied. The legislation establishes a list of 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses presumed to be linked to toxic smoke.
Danielle and her mother, Susan Zeier, have been fierce advocates for service men and women since learning about the burn pits and their connection to illnesses.
Their activism has caught national attention, with comedian Jon Stewart, an activist for veterans, informing Danielle on Monday that she would be heading to Washington D.C. to attend the State of the Union.
Zeier flew out of Ohio Tuesday morning wearing the army jacket of her late son-in-law.
“It's showing that all our hard work for the last three years has paid off, and we are keeping our promise to Heath,” Zeier said.
3News was able to catch up with Danielle shortly after she landed in D.C. She said the whole trip to the nation’s capital happened quickly. She called it an honor and privilege to sit for Heath and represent others who have passed away from toxic exposure from burn pits.
“His dying wish was to be able to have better healthcare for soldiers that were coming down with these illnesses later on when they got back home on the home front. And hopefully we're getting there with getting legislation passed,” Danielle said. “So I think we’re honoring his dying wish right now, tonight.”
For more information on advocacy surrounding the issue of burn pits, head to Burn Pits 360.