Burn pits legislation comforts family

Sgt. Ryan G. Mason, left, poses for a photo while in the Army. Provided photo

CARTHAGE — Sgt. Ryan G. Mason had a hard time obtaining benefits after he was exposed to burn pits while on deployment in Iraq. He died of cancer in January, and now his family is taking some comfort in many lawmakers proposing legislation to make the benefits more accessible.

After Mr. Mason died at age 36 on Jan. 28, state Sen. Patty Ritchie sent his wife, Claudia, a letter.

“I would like to express not only my most sincere condolences on his passing, but my gratitude for his selfless service to our nation,” the letter reads in part. “... It is my hope that you find comfort in knowing that through his life of service he made a difference that will endure for many years to come.”

And it’s not just Sen. Ritchie who is working on behalf of veterans like Mr. Mason. Many lawmakers have been advocating to end the troubles veterans have faced after they were exposed to burn pits while on deployment.

Mr. Mason grew up in Carthage and joined the Army at age 17, shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan were burning 60,000 to 85,000 pounds of solid waste per day. He came home and began feeling most of the common illnesses that result from such exposure, like shortness of breath, coughing, mucus buildup, joint and abdominal pain, fatigue and malaise. An estimated 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits. Mrs. Mason, said she fought with doctors for years, trying to convince them her husband’s illness was more serious.

He would go on to be diagnosed in 2019 with esophageal cancer and given just months to live. He would go on to live for two years until dying on Jan. 28 alongside his family.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Marco Rubio, comedian Jon Stewart and many others have now been advocating for new legislation called Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. They say it will streamline the process for veterans obtaining benefits after having been exposed to burn pits.

The act would remove the “burden of proof” the veteran has to provide to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure. The veteran, under the bill, would only need to submit documentation that they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War. Campaign medals are awarded to members of the armed forces who deploy for military operations in a designated combat zone or geographical theater.

“I think that would be fantastic,” said Maureen A. Ashcraft, Mr. Mason’s mother. “There isn’t a day I don’t cry, and I still wish I wouldn’t have signed the paper for him to enter, but then again I realize the wonderful job he did and how he loved his country. It’s just too bad he had to pay the price.”

Pat W. Britton, Mrs. Ashcraft’s brother, was very close with Mr. Mason. He said one of the hardest experiences he has ever went through was hearing Mr. Mason say goodbye for the last time over the phone.

“Ryan struggled with getting benefits,” Mr. Britton said. “He finally got some but it was just too late. Now I’m just glad that even though he passed, he still matters. It can only get better.”

The senators and former late-night TV host held a press conference touting the legislation on Tuesday. They were joined by John Feal, an advocate for first responders to the 9/11 attacks; U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D.; U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick; Tom Porter, executive vice president at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America; Le Roy Torres, CPT (Ret.), U.S. Army, co-founder of Burn Pits 360; Mark T. Jackson, staff sergeant (Ret.), 87th MP, U.S. Army, board chairman, Stronghold Freedom Foundation; Cindy Aman, SPC, Missouri Army National Guard; Gina Cancelino, surviving spouse of Ret. GySgt Joseph Cancelino USMC, burn pits advocate, Dr. Robert Miller, professor of medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Kristina Keenan, associate director, Veterans of Foreign Wars; and Dan Brewer, Lt. Col. (Ret.), U.S. Army, former environmental officer.

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