FREDERICKSBURG FREE LANCE STAR, LAURA MCFARLAND
A Powhatan firefighter’s battle with cancer has inspired a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would provide veteran firefighters with the fair compensation, healthcare, and retirement benefits earned through their service.
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, introduced a bill on Thursday, Jan. 15 called the Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act. The bill was inspired by Mike Lecik, a 40-year-old Powhatan resident who served as a U.S. Air Force firefighter and was twice deployed to the Middle East. He then transitioned to the civilian fire service, both professionally and as a volunteer with the Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department in his spare time.
In January 2019, Lecik was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that has been tied to the high-risk, carcinogenic workplace conditions that come with being a military firefighter.
The Veterans Health Administration does not currently cover Lecik’s significant treatment costs, as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—in many cases—does not recognize the direct service connection between firefighting and cancer as a presumptive service-connected disability beyond one year following active duty, according to a release from Spanberger’s office.
After enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in October 1999, Lecik served as a military firefighter until his discharge in 2008.
The Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act would create the presumption that veteran firefighters who become disabled by serious diseases—including heart disease, lung disease, and certain cancers—contracted the illness while serving in the military. Additionally, it would extend the window of time to recognize certain diseases as being service-connected to military firefighting to 15 years. By creating this presumption, the VA would be able to provide equitable disability benefits and treatment cost coverage to veteran firefighters like Lecik.
“Military firefighters put their lives on the line each day—not just to defend our country, but also to selflessly defend their fellow servicemembers. In the wake of his diagnosis, Mike and his family have demonstrated incredible strength, kindness, and bravery—traits he has always demonstrated in a life of service to others. He truly represents the best of the Seventh District, and his strength is an example and inspiration to me,” Spanberger said. “Mike is selflessly committed to making sure that other military firefighters don’t face the same challenges he has, and I am proud of our work together on this legislation.”
Lecik said he was proud to serve his country as a military firefighter, and, following his service, he was equally proud to build a life in Powhatan County with his wife, Tiffany, and three daughters, Amery, Aubry, and Adalyn, over the last seven years.
After his military service, Lecik became a civilian firefighter, working in both private and government positions in the years that followed. He began working as a Department of Defense fire inspector about six months after moving to Powhatan and was eventually promoted to chief fire inspector at Fort Lee. Soon after, he also began to volunteer with Company 2.
Lecik began treatment soon after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, but a few weeks later, he suffered a grand mal seizure. It left him in a brief coma and then paralyzed when he woke up five days later. The months that followed have been a barrage of chemotherapy treatments, medical treatments, and physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions.
Since his diagnosis, Lecik said he has been “incredibly humbled by the outpouring of support from our neighbors across the Powhatan community.”
“But still, the rising costs associated with my diagnosis have made things difficult, especially as my condition is not recognized as service-connected by the VA,” he said. “As a military firefighter, you take on massive amounts of risk, and you hope your country has your back. Especially amid high toxicity levels in materials currently used by the military, we need to take steps to take care of firefighters like me who eventually develop cancer or other diseases.”
Lecik thanked Spanberger for her leadership and determination in introducing this legislation, “because this change would prevent high levels of stress and undue pain among veterans and their families.”
Spanberger said she met Lecik when he approached her office with constituent services issues but she was already aware of his story through social media. Her constituent services team began working with him regarding veteran benefits, and she said it became clear to her that someone who had such a clearly firefighter-related cancer “shouldn’t be having such significant trouble getting the coverage he deserves.” On the civilian firefighter issue, there were already significant conversations about the chemicals used by firefighters and working to make sure they have presumptive illness coverage, but military firefighters were excluded, she added.
She said she introduced the bill in Lecik’s name because the VA is long overdue to provide veteran firefighters like him with the benefits they deserve.
“By recognizing the long-term effects of military firefighting and the diseases that can arise from this career over time, our bill would provide much-needed peace of mind and security to thousands of veteran firefighters and their families,” she said.
Although the bill is inspired by Lecik, Spanberger said she hopes her office will be able to help the former firefighter with his issues well before the bill could be expected to go into effect.
“I don’t want him to have to wait for this bill to move forward to get the coverage. But I think that speaks exactly to what this is. We shouldn’t have veterans who are working and fighting to get one-off approvals because of these types of illnesses,” she said. “We shouldn’t have veterans who have to pull together data upon data to show that they have a service-related injury or illness, particularly in this case when the science is so clear and we across the country have recognized the link between firefighting and certain types of cancers.”
A 2010 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that U.S. firefighters are more likely to suffer certain diseases and illnesses as a result of their career—and they experience higher rates of cancer than the general U.S. population. While many states have already recognized this link, the VA has not yet recognized this long-term presumptive disability—meaning thousands of U.S. veteran firefighters are left uncovered by the VA, according to the release.
More than just wanting to help Lecik, Spanberger said the goal of the bill is “there shouldn’t be additional Mikes down the line.”
“We were able to hear of his story, learn of his story, and recognize what is the shortfall in our laws that allows for someone like him to not be covered, and we are trying to fix that,” she said.
Spanberger introduced the legislation alongside republican Congressman Don Bacon from Nebraska, who is also a U.S. Air Force veteran. She said she barely got through telling him the title of the bill when he agreed to be the co-lead on it.
“I’ve served with hundreds of courageous and selfless military firefighters during my three decades in the air force. They were willing to pull us out of burning jets or carry us out of buildings engulfed in flames. In doing so, many came into contact with toxic substances and fumes,” said Bacon. “Our military firefighters deserve the same protections that other firefighters receive in our country by creating the presumption that those who become disabled from serious disease contracted the illness while serving in the military. This legislation ensures proper VA care. Our firefighters have our backs day and night, and we need to reciprocate when they encounter illnesses caused by their official duties.”
Spanberger and Bacon’s legislation, is H.R. 5637, was cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Elissa Slotkin (D-MI-08), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), Paul Mitchell (R-MI-10), Tom Cole (R-OK-04), Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA-06), Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21), and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ-05).