Lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday that would streamline the process for veterans to receive disability benefits for diseases that may be related to exposure to burn pits and other battlefield pollutants.
Bolstered by the support of advocate and comedian Jon Stewart, who successfully led the effort to continue financial support for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., announced a bill to remove a Department of Veterans Affairs requirement that veterans prove a link between a dozen diseases and exposure to burn pits and other toxins.
Instead, former service members would only have to provide documentation to the VA that they served at least 15 days in one of 33 countries listed in the proposed legislation.
"This is a moral outrage. It's also a looming crisis that must be addressed. Burn pits are so dangerous that they are outlawed on U.S. soil, but they were used all over the world. ... Many of our veterans have no time to spare," Gillibrand said during a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol.
"Service members are coming home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war ... drawing parallels to Agent Orange and 9/11 exposures," said Ruiz, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Burn Pit Caucus.
The monumental proposal could have an impact on more than 3 million veterans who have served since Aug. 2, 1990, in one of the countries and have a listed illness, similar to the landmark Agent Orange Act of 1991, which designated more than a dozen diseases as presumed to be caused by exposure to toxic herbicides used in Vietnam.
The illnesses include: asthma diagnosed after deployment to a listed country or territory; any type of cancer; chronic bronchitis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; constrictive bronchiolitis; emphysema; granulomatous disease; interstitial lung disease; lymphoma; pleuritis; pulmonary fibrosis; and sarcoidosis.
The countries and territories listed include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
Danielle Robinson's husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, deployed with the Ohio National Guard to Iraq in 2006, where he worked at Camp Liberty, nicknamed "Camp Trashcan" for its large burn pit. Robinson later developed a rare type of lung cancer that his doctor said "could only be due to toxic exposure."
He died in May.
Robinson said she was denied by the VA caregiver program even though she needed to quit her job as a physical therapist to care for her husband as he struggled with his illnesses.
"My husband is dead because America has poisoned its soldiers," Robinson said during the press conference.
More than 250 burn pits operated at U.S. military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, used to dispose of all types of garbage, including plastics, batteries, tires, computers, office equipment, animal carcasses, household trash and hospital waste.
Concern over the health threat they posed initially arose in 2006, when Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, a bioenvironmental flight commander for Joint Base Balad, Iraq, noted that the 10-acre-wide burn pit there posed a "acute health hazard for individuals" and the "possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke."
But troops and military contractors weren't made aware of the potential hazard until Army Times journalist Kelly Kennedy first began reporting on the issue in 2008.
In addition to respiratory illnesses, young service members have developed cancers and other illnesses not usually seen in people their age. After years of silence on the issue of his son Beau Biden's death from glioblastoma, a brain cancer, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden told PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in 2018 that burn pits may have a "carcinogenic impact on the body."
The National Academy of Sciences released a report Friday concluding that, while there is scientific evidence to link chronic respiratory symptoms like wheezing and coughing to burn pits, few studies exist that could conclusively connect exposure to burn pits and other airborne pollutants to diseases seen in veterans.
An 11-member advisory panel said their conclusions did not mean there is no link, only that the research or data did not exist to prove one.
The VA also has consistently cited a 2011 report by the same scientific advisory body that there is insufficient evidence to draw conclusions on the long-term health effects of burn pits.
Stewart called the arguments "bull----."
"The only difference between the first responders at Ground Zero who are dying of toxic exposures is that was caused as a result of a terrorist attack. … Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from the same illnesses and same exposures as the result of the actions of our own government," Stewart said.
More than 212,000 veterans have enrolled in VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, a congressionally mandated database for veterans to self-report their deployments and any health-related consequences.
In addition to airborne exposures, the bill would cover former service members affected by contact to chemical weapons, nerve agents or other battlefield toxins, such as those encountered by troops assigned to Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, according to Gillibrand.
The bill, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, has little chance of passing in the last 24 days of the legislative year. But Stewart said that he, along with advocate John Feal and numerous veterans service organizations, will continue fighting.
"We always have money for the war. We never have money for the warfighter," Stewart said. "Today, we plant the flag, and we are going to exhibit the relentlessness of the warfighter."