Local families of veterans hoping to benefit from burn pit act

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The Senate passed the PACT Act on Tuesday evening, a bill enhancing health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke has been investigating burn pits and how they’ve impacted some of our local veterans for the past few years, talking with those who’ve been advocating for this bill.

Michael Hemmerick of Ogden was an Army National Guard soldier when he met his wife Melissa. In fact, their wedding plans had to be moved up when he got deployed to Afghanistan a few years after 9/11. “We put together a wedding and we got married and then off he went,” Melissa recalls.

A few years after he got back from his first tour, he was deployed again. As a heavy wheeled mechanic, Melissa says her husband was in charge of the motor pool on base, and when something was unfixable, it went into the burn pits with all of the other garbage and was lit on fire. "They put everything in the burn pits, if they didn’t want you to know about it they put it in the burn pits…I can’t imagine, no masks, no respirators, no nothing,” she tells News10NBC.

Michael returned from his second tour in Afghanistan in January of 2013 and within two years he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Things then went from bad to worse. "What they think happened is it metastasized from the neck to the liver but there was a tumor a grapefruit-size tumor in his lung pushing on his liver,” Melissa says. “They told me that they were going to take him upstairs and he was going to be comfortable and I looked at them and I said no, you’re not I said I’m taking my husband home.”

Michael Hemmerick died on December 29, 2017. He, his doctors, and his loving wife and son were convinced his cancer was caused by his constant exposure to the toxins in the burn pits but Melissa has never seen a dime of service-related death benefits.

“I would have given up and that’s what they want you to do they want you to give up so that they don’t have another one to take care of,” she says, but she continued to fight and advocate for the PACT Act. She says she wants to ensure that other families don’t go through what her family has. "Why do you have to jump through hoops of fire, they’ve done enough for their country,” she says.

Michael Hemmerick was a soldier for 35 years, he never retired before his death which means Melissa may now be able to get service-connected death benefits as his surviving spouse. She’ll know more once the PACT Act is officially signed into law by the President.