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He died for his country

By Matt Westerhold • Apr 24, 2019 at 11:00 AM

SANDUSKY — When the nation was attacked, Sean Sarrica heard a call to duty.

“Upon the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center Sean was overcome with his pride as an American and he enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard 1483rd Transportation Company. He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, first as a convoy gunner and later as a heavy equipment mechanic.”

That’s an excerpt from Sean Sarrica’s obituary in the Norwalk Reflector. He died Sept. 3, 2011. The cause of death was a rare lung disease.

His parents and veterans advocates believe the Sandusky native’s death was caused by exposure to toxic smoke from giant burn pits maintained by U.S. commanders at camps where soldiers were stationed all over in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Don and Pat Sarrica, his parents, and Susan Zeier, an advocate trying to convince Congress to let veterans suffering from toxic exposure, their families and physicians testify before the Senate and House veterans affairs committees. 

The Veterans Administration does not acknowledge or recognize illnesses related to toxic exposure from the steady stream of smoke that hundreds of burn pits in both countries created. U.S. commanders burned everything — from chemicals to vehicles, to computers and human body parts in the pits — maintaining the football field-sized fires 24/seven, according to burnpits360.org, a group pressing Congress to act.

“He was 210 pounds when he came home in the summer of 2010,” Pat Sarrica said. “When we saw him at Thanksgiving he didn’t look good, and by Christmas that year we knew it was bad. He was in bad shape.”

He’d dropped 75 pounds and was down to 135 when they began providing full-time care for him in January 2011 until his death in September.

“He had open sores on his hands, his elbows,” said Don Sarrica, a veteran of the Vietnam War. “The doctors said his lungs inside were just fried, they were not functional.”

Sean was treated at the Cleveland Clinic, where he seemed to improve, and later at a Veterans Administration clinic, where his health began to fail quickly. 

“When he was a military gunner I worried about him so much,” Pat said, not realizing how horrifying his sickness after his return home would become. “He never regretted serving his country.”

Zeier, whose son-in-law is active duty and a veteran of those wars, has been lobbying Congress for two years to get hearings in front of the veterans affairs committees of both the House and Senate. She also wants Congress to approve legislation that would fully recognize all potential victims of burn pits exposure and guarantee them competent medical care. 

“The Veterans Administration doesn’t want to do anything because of the expense of caring for sick veterans,” Zeier said, repeating what many advocates contend, same as the advocates for victims of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. “They are waiting for them to die.”

Don and Pat Sarrica want their son’s name to be added to the burn pits registry, but under current regulations, he can’t even be counted because he’s already dead.

Zeier will be back in Washington next week and plans to talk with members of the U.S. House for passage of H.R. 1001, the registry act, and H.R. 1005, the Burn Pits Veterans Revision Act. She left generic letters for supporters to sign in the Sandusky Register lobby and urged anyone who supports veterans to come to the newspaper building’s lobby and leave the signed letters for her to pick up on Friday. 

A copy of the letter on this article on the website can be printed, signed and mailed to a U.S. congressman or to Zeier at the address listed. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) represents the 9th Congressional District, and Jim Jordan (R-Urbana) represents the 4th District, which includes Norwalk.

Earlier this year U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, asked the committee to begin holding hearings to hear directly from veterans, their families and physicians.

“Ohio veterans and their families deserve answers, and that’s why I continue pushing for hearings in the Veterans Affairs’ Committee on toxic exposure and urging Congress pass the Burn Pit Accountability Act,” Brown said.

It seemed to be on track, but now it’s unknown when hearings will happen or whether the veterans will get to speak. It’s unclear why committee chair Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, hasn’t approved the hearings or why he or other senators on the committee might be trying to keep veterans from testifying.

When contacted Monday, Brown was unable to give an update on the status of his request for hearings, or say if or why there’s an attempt to block testimony from veterans suffering burn pit-related illnesses.

Brown introduced legislation in January to help study the effects of burn pits on service members’ health. Last month Brown pressed Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Robert Wilkie to act to help servicemembers and veterans harmed by toxic exposure such as Agent Orange and burn pits.

Brown said he continues working with Chairman Isakson and Ranking Member (John) Tester (R-Montana) to get a hearing on the schedule.

Sean Sarrica was born Dec. 26, 1971 in Sandusky and attended Sandusky City Schools and St. Mary's Catholic School. Prior to his death, he had been employed as a heavy equipment mechanic at Camp Perry. He also worked for Home Depot and Sandusky International.

In addition to his parents, survivors included his wife, Kathleen (Suter) Sarrica; and a daughter, Samantha Sarrica.

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Members of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee can be contacted at the following numbers: Sen. Johnny Isakson, phone (202) 224-3643; 
Sen. Jerry Moran, phone (202) 224-6521; Sen. John 
Boozman, phone (202) 224-4843; Sen. Bill 
Cassidy, phone (202) 224-5824; Sen. Mike 
Rounds, phone (202) 224-5842; Sen. Thom 
Tillis, phone (202) 224-6342; Sen. Dan  
Sullivan, phone (202) 224-3004; Sen. Marsha 
Blackburn, phone (202) 224-3344; Sen. Kevin 
Cramer, phone (202) 224-2043; Sen. Jon Tester, phone (202) 224-2644; Sen. Patty 
Murray, phone (202) 224-2621; Sen. Bernie 
Sanders, phone (202) 224-5141; Sen Sherrod 
Brown, phone (202) 224-2315
; Sen. Richard Blumenthal, phone (202) 224-2823; Sen. Mazie 
Hirono, phone (202) 224-6361; Sen. Joe 
Manchin, phone (202) 224-3954; Sen. Kyrsten 
Sinema, phone (202) 224-4521.

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