VALATIE, N.Y. (News10)-Federal Legislation that would dramatically expand benefit coverage for veterans who were exposed to toxic smoke and chemicals remains in limbo. A Capital Region widow shared her story with News10’s Anya Tucker and why she feels it needs to be finalized.

Tiffany Buono and her husband Mike had what you might call an unconventional courtship, with him proposing after just a few dates. “He said, ‘This is really working for me. I think we should get married.’ And I said, “I have half a day of work on Thursday.’ And so we got married 13 days after the day we met,” said Tiffany.

The Valatie, New York couple eloped. And thus began an adventure that would include 2 children. Mike, served his community as a volunteer firefighter after serving his country as a Marine from 2006 until 2010, with one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. “He had a very patriotic soul,” said Tiffany.

In 2020, while the Buono’s were living in Oklahoma, Mike thought he caught COVID. After several tests he found out it was leukemia. “I was like, we have been married for 7 years and you’ve never even had anything like a cold. How do you have leukemia?” She said he did not have any medical or family history of the kind of cancer he was diagnosed with.

He was transferred to a special cancer center, not a VA facility. So, his medical care care wasn’t covered by Veterans Affairs. Tiffany told News10’s Anya Tucker that she was maxing out credit cards, paying 45- thousand dollars out of pocket.

Around the time her husband was diagnosed, Tiffany says other Marines who had served with Mike were also being diagnosed with various cancers. The one thing they all had in common: Burn pits.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military bases routinely burned all their waste in large pits. Sometimes lighting them on fire with jet fuel. The smoke and fumes wafting into soldier’s tents and surrounding areas.

Mike was placed on the VA’s Burn Pit Registry, but being on the registry does not ensure coverage.

Recently, procedural issues have delayed the finalization of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act. The legislation approves nearly 300-billion dollars for expanded veteran medical coverage for on-duty toxic exposures and it would also help older veterans of the Vietnam War era.

“Burn pits are the agent orange of this generation,“ added Tiffany.

In May of 2021, at just 37 years of age and 10 months after his diagnosis, Mike Buono died.

Tiffany realizes the legislation may be too late for them, but she knows it could help many other veterans and their families with illnesses previously not covered under VA benefits. And that’s why she’s hoping its finalized as soon as possible.

News10 received this statement from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA):

“The Honoring Our PACT Act remains a top priority for IAVA and is supported by all national veterans and military family organizations. It has passed both chambers and now has broad bipartisan support. Unfortunately, a procedural issue has temporarily delayed final Congressional passage, but we are confident it will be a top priority to send it to the President’s desk when Congress returns from the break.”

-Tom Porter/Executive Vice President, Government Affairs IAVA