After Denials, Army Veteran Exposed To Toxic Burn Pit Smoke Gets His Disability Benefits

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After being rejected twice, a Connecticut Army veteran has been awarded federal disability benefits for terminal brain cancer he contends was caused by exposure to open burn pits in Afghanistan.

Peter Antioho, 33, of Berlin, had to walk daily through heavy smoke emanating from burn pits as he performed his job as second in command on his base in 2012. A variety of items, including human and animal waste, plastic, ammunition and batteries were burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day in open pits.

He was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer two years ago. (The Conn. Health I-Team reported on Antoho’s case on May 14. )

He was in the process of a third appeal to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) when he learned Thursday that he will receive full disability payments. Amy Antioho, Peter’s wife, said the news is “life changing in that now we don’t have to keep fighting the VA, we can fight the cancer.”

She said they have been “struggling to split their time” between trying to prove to the VA a service connection to the cancer, dealing with the cancer, and “being a family.” The couple has a three-year-old son, Mark.

They celebrated with a trip to a Dairy Queen, after receiving the news from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office.

Melanie Stengel Photo.

Mark, Peter and Amy Antioho in their Berlin home.

The VA doesn’t automatically assume service connection when veterans seek benefits for illnesses they contend were caused by exposure to military burn pits. Advocates are urging Congress to pass legislation which would do that.  The VA maintains that more research is needed and, in the meantime, considers applications like Antioho’s on a case-by-case basis. It rejected 80 percent of the 12,378 burn pit disability claims filed between June 2007 and last March 31, according to VA statistics.

Blumenthal called the decision to grant benefits to Antioho “profoundly important, first, for a courageous veteran and warrior who served and sacrificed for our nation. It’s justice for him.  But, it also reflects a broader recognition that toxic and poisonous substances on the battlefield in burn pits and elsewhere can create wounds and injuries every bit as pernicious as bullets or explosions or other direct wounds of war.”

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he supports passing a law that would recognize “the disabling effects of poisons on the battlefield.”  However, he expressed belief that the VA can establish a policy on its own without a law.

Both Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. John Larson, both Connecticut Democrats, had reached out to the VA to advocate for Peter Antioho. Larson said he is “beyond relieved that the Antiohos are finally getting the benefits they deserve.”

“Peter and his family have fought this disease with courage and grace. All they wanted was for their country to recognize their sacrifices,” said Larson, who represents the state’s First Congressional district, in which the Antiohos reside.  “I’m glad that the VA did the right thing.  I wish they hadn’t dragged out the process,” he added.

Peter Antioho first applied for disability benefits last June. The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) was preparing additional materials to submit to the VA when the approval was granted. Cinthia Johnson, CVLC deputy director, said “all the evidence needed to support Peter’s claim had been presented to the VA, but it was still denied twice because burn pit claims, particularly for veterans who served in Afghanistan, don’t have a clear path through this complex process.”

Amy Antioho said she and her husband “had happy tears in our eyes” when they learned of the VA decision.  They had provided medical records, witness statements from doctors, Peter Antioho’s commander and military colleagues, and their own statements in the applications.

“Our life is changing and yes, money helps,” she said, but added that “there are still a lot of people dealing with this and I hope Congressional folks will keep fighting.”  The Antiohos will also receive Aid and Attendance benefits which are provided when a veteran needs help with daily activities or is housebound.

There are a number of proposals in Congress regarding burn pits: requiring the Pentagon to track burn pit exposure of each service member, include it in all medical and military records, and share the data with the VA; automatically enrolling all exposed veterans in a VA registry, which is now voluntary; and permitting designees to add cause of death to registry data on deceased veterans.

Supporters have expressed hope that the measures would help identify illnesses and their prevalence among military exposed to burn pits so an automatic service connection would be presumed by the VA when veterans seeks benefits.

Peter Antioho, a West Point graduate, has cancer symptoms that include memory loss, and impaired vision, speech and motor function.  He can’t work or drive. Of the approval, he said congratulations were in order for his wife and son.  “They are everything,” he said.


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