Advocates for Veterans Sickened by Burn Pits Are Taking Their Biggest Stand Yet on Capitol Hill

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Jon Stewart speaks about veterans sickened by burn pits.
Jon Stewart, flanked by key lawmakers and advocates near Capitol Hill, speaks about healthcare and disability eligibility for veterans sickened by burn pits. (Steve Beynon/Military.com)

Rosie Torres has been advocating for health care for veterans sickened by burn pits for years. This could be the year a major bill passes through Congress or the effort could suffer a crushing and demoralizing defeat.

For decades, the military used open-air burn pits to dispose of garbage, paint, plastics, jet fuel and human waste. Now, some veterans are getting sick and dying from what they believe are cancers and other illnesses caused by breathing in the toxic fumes.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 3.5 million veterans were exposed to toxic burn pits, yet 75% are denied health care and disability compensation. The VA maintains that the science is unclear on the link between conditions such as cancer and breathing in burning garbage for months at a time.

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Torres and other advocates, including former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, have been lobbying heavily for The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

On paper, the bill is set up for success: Democrats have slim control of Congress; the lobbying campaign has Stewart as its heavyweight to bring in a wide array of attention from media that doesn't otherwise cover veterans issues; and President Joe Biden himself has been touched by the problem after his son Beau, a major in the Delaware Army National Guard, died of brain cancer in 2015 due to what his father suspects was the result of burn pit exposure in Iraq.

But the bill cannot seem to get off the ground. Even as lawmakers say there's huge support for the effort on Capitol Hill and across the board with influential veterans advocates, the ambitious health care plan is still stuck in legislative mud. With the stars seemingly aligned and setting the bill up for success, many argue this year is the best shot to pass something entitling veterans to presumptive care.

"We've been playing with this issue for almost 20 years," Torres, co-founder and executive director for Burn Pits 360, said in an interview with Military.com. "I don't see there being another approach or tactic, anything that could be said or done differently than we are with this bill. There's nothing different that we could do next year."

The measure, which also was proposed last year and failed to get significant traction, would remove the burden of proof from a veteran to show that they got sick from service; they would need to prove only that they served in one of the 34 countries named in the bill.

The bill also has the backing of key veterans groups, including the American Legion and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA. A House version was introduced by Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

The Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, has yet to issue a "score" on the bill estimating its overall cost, which could be enormous and scare off some lawmakers, especially given the mammoth amount of money the federal government has spent lately combating COVID-19 and jolting the economy.

"This is a bill [for] which the time has come. I'm optimistic we'll get a vote this year, because it's something that's affecting so many people in the country," Gillibrand said in an interview with Military.com. "I feel like the level of advocacy for this is significant. We're still waiting on our CBO score, but the truth is, this is the cost of war, and we have to include that when we're deciding when and how to deploy."

Meanwhile, the VA is the second largest federal agency, and its budget has ballooned over the years with no end in sight. Biden's budget plan, unveiled last week, calls for an 8.2% increase in discretionary funding for the department, an $8.5 billion boost, bringing discretionary spending to $113.1 billion.

Advocates and some lawmakers argue that health care for veterans is part of the cost of war just as much as tanks and planes. On top of veterans sickened over the past two decades, there's no reason to think the next war won't expose troops to toxic environments, they say.

It is unclear how many veterans have been sickened by burn pits. According to the VA, 13,936 veterans filed a claim related to exposure between June 2007 and Feb. 28 of this year. Of that number, 9,380 were denied.

"They come home, and now the enemy is negligence, bureaucracy and apathy," Stewart said Tuesday as he was flanked by key lawmakers and advocates at a press conference. "They aren't trained for that. The VA has one job, to act in the benefit of the veteran. That's it. If the culture doesn't change, then we will continue to make the same mistake we've clearly made decade after decade, forcing more suffering and disease."

It's unlikely the data shows the full scope of what some fear is the largest veteran health care crisis since Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Many veterans might not bother going through the VA since it is not clear for whom it will provide care and disability compensation; some might not even be aware their conditions could be service connected. But more than 230,000 veterans have registered for the agency's burn pit data collection registry.

Gillibrand said she discussed the issue with Biden last year and felt he would be a key ally, given his son's exposure. But to the ire of some advocates, the president hasn't mentioned burn pits once since taking office.

"The administration is committed to understanding and addressing the effects of toxic exposures, including to exposure to burn pits, for military service members and veterans," a White House spokesperson told Military.com

Gillibrand's bill is one of several burn pit-related measures on the table. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., recently introduced her own presumptive care bill, but it lacks what some advocates argue is a critical provision allowing for more diseases to be covered down the road. Instead, her bill sticks to a static list of illnesses. However, that might reduce the bill's overall cost.

There are also a handful of other burn pit-related bills set to be introduced soon, according to a House VA committee aide, signaling that this surely will be the focus of lawmakers who work on veterans issues. Yet whether big-ticket items to deliver health care to sick veterans can get across the finish line this Congress is the looming question.

Advocates say they are fed up with waiting around as more veterans get sick and die at relatively young ages, adding that more studies and half measures from Congress don't cut it anymore.

"This is it. If you were to ask veterans if they want research, they'll tell you no. They want to be treated for their injuries; they want to be compensated for their injuries," Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for IAVA, said in an interview with Military.com. "We can't be having this conversation next year. The stars are aligned this year, period."

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

Related: 'We're Better Than This': Jon Stewart, Veterans Advocates Rally for Bipartisan Burn Pit Legislation

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