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Scott signs bill to raise awareness of military burn pit dangers

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Military widow June Heston speaks at Monday’s signing of the military burn pit bill. Photo by Alexandre Silberman

NORTHFIELD — There were tears in the audience when Gov. Phil Scott signed into law a bill promoting awareness about military burn pits.

The legislation, S.111, which Scott signed under bright sunshine outside Norwich University, calls for the creation of educational materials around the dangers of burn pits. It also makes enrollment in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry opt-out instead of opt-in.

Burn pits were a common method of waste disposal in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans and their families, however, are worried about the impact of inhaling the pits’ fumes, and the new bill is a response to their concerns.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website claims that the health effects of burn pits are unknown. But for those who believe they have felt those effects, the correlation is clear: The bill saw testimony from several veterans and family members, including military widow June Heston of Richmond. Heston lost her husband seven months ago to pancreatic cancer, and doctors attribute the loss to toxins from the pits.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who co-sponsored the bill, said she had never before seen an issue rouse as much “anger, frustration and sadness” as S.111. It passed easily in both the House and the Senate, a rapidity that multiple speakers called “necessary.”

After its uncontentious run through the Legislature, Scott signed the bill next to Norwich’s Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.

University President Richard Schneider said the monument was “very special” to Brig. Gen. Michael Heston, June Heston’s late husband who served three tours in Afghanistan. Schneider recalled the day two years ago when the monument was built — a process that Heston helped with.

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“[He] was actually here with a shovel, and the governor was here behind the big backhoe,” Schneider said.

Scott, who called Norwich the “best of the best in terms of the military,” emphasized the sacrifices of military families in his remarks before signing the bill.

“I know protecting your fellow soldiers and families is part of your duty, but you deserve our gratitude for doing so with honor,” he said. “We’re here to make S.111 law, because it’s our responsibility as civilians and as a government to do whatever we can to support the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces.”

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Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, sponsored the burn pit bill. Photo by Alexandre Silberman/VTDigger

After comments from Schneider, Scott, White and Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Stannard, the morning ended with June Heston herself. Most of the earlier speakers had referenced her story — but her personal appearance was met with lengthy applause.

“Mike knew the burn pits were a problem. What he didn’t know is that he would die as a result of war off the battlefield, in the battle of his life,” Heston said. “He would say to me, maybe now people will pay attention, so others won’t have to go through the same thing. So he was not only fighting for his life, he was fighting for his family, and he was fighting for his soldiers and their families.”

Upon signing the bill, Scott’s first action was to give Heston a hug.

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Iris Lewis

About Iris

Iris Lewis is a summer 2019 intern at VTDigger. She is a rising junior at Harvard University, where she writes for the student newspaper, the Crimson. She is originally from Underhill, Vermont.