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'Breathing through a straw:' New law could help veterans with lung issues

'I’ve always felt like the way I’ll die is by suffocating'
Congress Veterans Burn Pits
Posted at 6:49 PM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 20:16:54-04

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (WTVF)  — Soldiers battling terrorists in the Middle East were fighting to survive. But when they came home, they were faced with a different struggle — the inability to breathe.

Now that the PACT Act has become law, it aims to help veterans who are suffering due to inhaling burn pit smoke and other toxins.

In 2004, Fort Campbell soldier Kevin Adamson said he was exposed to burn pits in Iraq. Now, his lungs are permanently damaged.

He's also concerned because some of his Army friends have already died from cancer.

"It is extremely difficult,” Adamson said. “And then another thing that happens is you get a lot of different sinus conditions and things that go along with this, and so it becomes not only breathing through the straw, but now it’s like breathing through a straw if it’s stuck in a milkshake."

In 2010, he was part of a group that was sent to Vanderbilt for more testing which was covered by NewsChannel5 Investigates.

Kevin found out he had 20% scarring in his lungs.

"I was actually awarded the service connection back in 2013 but the problem is, the way that the VA does their disability rating, is based on normal pulmonary tests, and these conditions show up normal on those pulmonary tests," Adamson said.

At one point, he was a chaplain’s assistant with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Kevin didn't want to be a burden, so he quit the military which impacted his retirement benefits.

"There’s a saying you’re either an asset or a liability, and I never wanted to be a liability to the people that we worked with," Adamson said.

He now works in IT on computers since physical activity is difficult. That's why Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Dr. Robert Miller has been fighting for change.

"I think that’s the thing that has driven me as much as anything," Dr. Miller said. "These were people who had to leave the military because they were too short of breath to meet the Army’s physical fitness standards."

Fast forward to 2022, and Congress made the PACT Act into law. It aims to get veterans benefits if they were exposed to toxins and burn pits.

Kevin hopes it will force them to change how they evaluate lung conditions.

"I’m hoping that their long-term care will involve a VA system that will now recognize them as having a service-connected disability," Miller said.

Years down the road, it's unclear what health challenges veterans like Kevin will face.

"I’ve always felt like the way I’ll die is by suffocating and that’s what it feels like," Adamson said.

As soon as it passed, Kevin re-applied for benefits through the VA.

They can also call 1-800-MYVA411 to apply.