RACINE, Ohio — Andrea Neutzling is a mother, a veteran, and an advocate for The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act.
The act, which would provide comprehensive benefits to all generations of veterans who have suffered due to toxic exposure, is named in honor of Heath Robinson, a Central Ohio veteran who deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard, and passed away in 2020 from cancer as a result of toxic exposure during his military service. Neutzling is very invested in its passage; not only has she had firsthand experience of fellow soldiers who have suffered from exposure, she herself has numerous medical conditions related to her exposure in Iraq.
“I want people to know and understand, this is a real medical issue we are dealing with, and that they are not alone,” she said. “Just like the Viet Nam Veterans were dealing with health issues stemming from exposure. This bill will help all veterans get the assistance we need.”
Neutzling said she wants to tell her story so that others will come forward and seek the help they need in dealing with the issues the exposure has induced.
After enlisting in 2000, Neutzling received advanced individual training as an intelligence analyst at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. She spent eight months in South Korea, then came back to Ft. Gordan, Ga., supporting the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. She remained on active duty until she became a reservist in 2004, and served until 2010. As a reservist, Neutzling was with the 391 Battalion in Columbus, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with a Military Police Battalion from Michigan. She spent 10 months at Camp Bucca, a theater internment facility that conducted detainee operations. During that period, she was exposed to burn pits, making sure documents were properly disposed.
“We were in the burn pits and had to remain to make sure the document disposal was complete,” Neutzling said. “And it wasn’t just paper that was being burnt in those pits.”
According to the US department of Veterans Affairs, a burn pit is an area devoted to open-air combustion of trash. Waste products in burn pits include, but are not limited to chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metal/aluminum cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, plastics and Styrofoam, rubber, wood, and discarded food.
Neutzling said the burn pit was “huge, about the size of that baseball field,” she said, pointing to the field at Star Mill Park in Racine. “We had driven into it and stay with the materials, there were things burning that wouldn’t have been allowed to be burned in the US.”
She said she saw lithium-ion batteries, medical waste, and plastics that were lit with jet fuel and burned 24/7.
“It was always burning, always in the air at our camp,” she said.
As a result, she has been diagnosed by doctors with five diverse types of lung disease, two of which are constrictive bronchiolitis obliterans and pulmonary fibrosis. The conditions can be extremely painful during flare-ups, and she has been told her condition will eventually be fatal.
“The condition’s irreversible, I have life-shortening diseases, even with a lung transplant, the condition will continue,” she said. “Studies are being done with veterans to see which treatments will be most effective, some are experimental, but except for oxygen therapy, there is no proven treatment, and there is no cure for the conditions I have.”
Getting a diagnosis was a long, exhausting process, and there were few if any doctors familiar with burn pits at that time when her symptoms developed in 2008. First diagnosed with asthma, her symptoms progressed until she found a doctor at Ohio State Medical Center who was familiar with burn pits. After innumerable tests, she was diagnosed by an open lung biopsy.
“There was no noninvasive procedure to determine the condition at this time,” she said. “My surgeon told me my lungs were really “sparkly” from the silicon and quartz dust particles from the desert sand, and that contributes to my condition as well.”
Neutzling’s daughter Paxton graduated from Southern Local High School in 2021 and is attending college.
“She has been through all of this with me,” Neutzling said. “She has been with me when I couldn’t breathe, I know she is stressed by my condition.”
After her diagnosis, she received her status of disabled, she began advocating for The PACT Act/HR3967 SSC.
Neutzling has made numerous trips to D.C. and around the area, including West Virginia and Ohio, to gain support for the passage of the PACT Act, and recently attended Senate hearings to move the bill through.
With news of the bill’s passage in the US Senate on Thursday, Neutzling said she was happy and relieved, saying, “So many people worked to get this bill passed. It won’t undo the damage to our health, but it will help with medical treatment and assistance to our families in dealing with this issue.”
Now she and other veterans await the final passage in the House and the signing into law by the president.
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