Sweeping Measure Would Provide Care, Disability to Thousands of Vets Sickened by Burn Pits

Comedian, writer and veterans advocate Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference
Comedian, writer and veterans advocate Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference on "The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020" at the House Triangle on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

A sweeping measure was introduced in the Senate Friday that could open up health care and disability compensation to a huge swath of veterans made sick by burn pits and other toxic exposures during military service.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reintroduced the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which would do away with most of the burden of proof on veterans to show they got sick from breathing in burning garbage for up to a year at a time while deployed.

The measure was also introduced last year and never got any serious traction. This year, its bipartisan sponsorship means it could have a better chance of becoming law.

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Veteran advocates have grown increasingly impatient, faulting Congress for being unable to pass any significant legislation that delivers care and compensation to veterans made sick by exposure to burn pits and other toxic environments. The VA has also not issued clear guidance on who can get compensation for toxic exposure.

The VA estimates 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits, according to a 2015 report. Yet the department has denied claims of roughly 75% of veterans. As of January, the VA had approved claims related to burn-pit exposure for 3,442 veterans out of 13,830. It is unlikely the data paints a complete picture. It’s unclear how many suffer from serious burn pit-connected health ailments, or how many veterans are sick and unaware that illness is linked to service abroad.

The VA maintains the science is not clear on diseases potentially caused by burn pit exposure. Advocates, however, have argued the department is stalling and repeating mistakes made with Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and World War II veterans exposed to radiation.

The department itself and Congress are also likely wrestling with the enormous cost of providing care to such a large potential pool of veterans who connect their illnesses to burn pit exposure. The VA is the second-largest federal agency in terms of size and budget, and costs could quickly balloon if it was required to provide care to any veteran who believes their cancer is service-connected.

"The VA continues to deny them care by placing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases and respiratory illnesses," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Congress cannot sit by as the VA ignores its duty. The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care -- period."

Under current rules, veterans who believe their illness came from toxic exposure or burn pits must establish a direct service connection for benefits, a process that can include a doctor's statement and proof of where a veteran served, among other documents. For veterans affected by burn pits, this can prove especially challenging -- it can be virtually impossible to prove the exact location of overseas service or that there was a burn pit there. It could also be a monumental task to prove a cancer was caused by that burn pit.

If Gillibrand and Rubio's bill became law, veterans would only have to prove they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War, and that they suffer from one of a long list of qualifying health conditions. Those conditions include the following:

  • Asthma diagnosed after service
  • Head cancer of any kind
  • Neck cancer of any kind
  • Respiratory cancer of any kind
  • Gastrointestinal cancer of any kind
  • Reproductive cancer of any kind
  • Lymphoma of any kind
  • Kidney cancer
  • Brain cancer
  • Melanoma
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis
  • Emphysema
  • Granulomatous disease
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Pleuritis
  • Pulmonary fibrosis
  • Sarcoidosis

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who has been a top voice on Capitol Hill for veterans affected by burn pits and has led the effort on presumptive care, will introduce a House version of Gillibrand's bill in conjunction with an April 13 press conference that he, Gillibrand, and Rubio will hold in Washington, D.C. with veteran advocates including Jon Stewart.

Stewart, the former "Daily Show" host, has thrown his advocacy weight behind the burn pits issue after successfully lobbying to secure health care for victims of the 9/11 attacks who got sick after inhaling the toxic smoke, fumes and dust.

"There's a lot of similarities between the first responders' struggle and those exposed to burn pits," Stewart said in an interview with Military.com. "And not just the health struggles, but the struggles with having it recognized by the government. The only difference between this and 9/11 is, we did this to our own troops as opposed to an attack. We operated those burn pits."

Many who work on or lobby for veterans' issues also believe President Joe Biden's personal connection to the issue could put it on the fast track for action.

Biden suspects his son, Beau, who was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard, died of brain cancer in 2015 due to exposure to burn pits in Iraq. Beau Biden was at Balad Air Base.

"[Beau volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go," Biden told a Service Employees International Union convention in 2019. "And because of exposure to burn pits -- in my view, I can't prove it yet -- he came back with Stage Four glioblastoma."

Biden has yet to mention burn pits since his inauguration.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon

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