October 08, 2020

During Visit To Veterans Outreach Center, Senator Gillibrand And Representative Morelle Call For New Legislation To Help Veterans With Diseases Linked To Burn Pits And Other Toxic Exposures Obtain Benefits From VA

VA Continues to Deny Burn Pit-related Disability Claims For Nearly 8 in 10 Veterans; Bill Would Establish Presumption Of Service Connection For Veterans Sickened by Burn Pit Exposure And Streamline The Process For Obtaining VA Benefits

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Joe Morelle visited the Veterans Outreach Center to call for new landmark legislation, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020. Senator Gillibrand’s recently introduced legislation would streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposures. The Veterans Outreach Center has been serving veterans and their families in the Rochester community through their programs that help them find employment and job training, housing, and other support services. Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits that spewed toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air. Yet, despite the known health consequences of burn pit and other toxic exposures, the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to deny burn pit related disability claims for nearly 8 in 10 veterans.  

“For decades, we’ve watched our 9/11 first responders and Vietnam veterans suffer from deadly ailments due to toxic exposure. Now, as veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they are suffering from the same cancers, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses and the VA is leaving them out in the cold,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Congress cannot sit by as the VA fails to protect those who served our country. Veterans should not be forced to beg for coverage—if they were exposed and they are sick, they need health care—period. This legislation will make that a reality and I will fight to make it law.”

“We owe our courageous veterans an eternal debt of gratitude—however, all too often, our servicemembers do not receive the essential care they deserve when they return home,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “I’m proud to join Senator Gillibrand in co-sponsoring this legislation to ensure veterans who were exposed to harmful toxins have access to the health and disability services they need without the struggle of unnecessary red tape. As the son of a veteran, I’m grateful for the opportunity to help give these patriots the support they have earned, and I look forward to working alongside Senator Gillibrand to move this legislation forward.”

“We are so appreciative to Senator Gillibrand for her unwavering commitment to addressing all of the relevant issues facing our veterans,” Veterans Outreach Center Executive Director and U.S. Army Veteran Laura Stradley said. “She continues to set the example for all of our elected officials when it comes to understanding the needs of the brave men and women who have served our nation.” 

During military operations in the Global War on Terror and the Gulf War, the military employed open-air burn pits in order to burn garbage, medical waste, plastics, and other waste from military installations. According to estimates, at least 230 burn pits were utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others were used across the world. The largest of these burn pits were located at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and comprised 10-acres of burning trash, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, from 2003 to 2009. 

It has long been established that burning waste and garbage has significant negative impacts on the environment and human health--which is why using burn pits on American soil is against the law and exposure to other toxic substances is highly regulated. However, the military exposed millions of our men and women in uniform to carcinogenic toxic fumes released by burn pits that were used throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million military personnel could have been exposed to burn pits and the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry website shows that more than 212,000 veterans and service members have completed and submitted a questionnaire to self-report medical information about burn pit exposure. 

Furthermore, the exposure of our service members to dangerous chemicals and environments has not been limited to burn pits. Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. military established Camp Stronghold at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, a former Soviet base in Uzbekistan that had soil contaminated with chemical weapons and depleted uranium. Thousands of veterans were exposed to these dangerous toxins at this base, and many now suffer from rare cancers and other ailments.

Veterans are now sick and dying from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses after living among this toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris while serving our country overseas. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny many veteran’s access to the VA with the excuse that there isn’t enough science to prove their ailments are service-connected.  

Under current law, a veteran who has an illness or disability must establish a direct service connection in order to be eligible for VA benefits. Direct service connections means that evidence establishes that a particular injury or disease resulting in a disability was incurred while in service in the Armed Forces. For veterans exposed to burn pits, this means they would need to provide medical evidence of a current disease or disability, provide evidence of in-service physical presence near a specific burn pit or exposure to specific toxins or substance and provide evidence of a link between the disability or illness and that exposure. Upon completion of these steps, the VA determines if there is enough evidence to provide a medical exam and continue with the disability compensation claim. Therefore, it is currently the veteran’s responsibility to prove their illness or disability is directly connected to burn pit exposure. 

The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020 would remove the “burden of proof” from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure. Rather, the veteran would only need to submit evidence of deployment to one of the 34 countries named in the bill or receipt of a service-medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War. 

Presumptive conditions include: Asthma that was diagnosed after service in a country or territory listed, Cancer of any type, Chronic bronchitis, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis, Emphysema, Granulomatous disease, Interstitial lung disease, Lymphoma, Pleuritis, Pulmonary fibrosis, and Sarcoidosis.

To be covered, veterans must have received a campaign medal for deployment to one of the missions considered part of the Global War on Terror, Gulf War or served on active duty on or after August 2, 1990 and spent a minimum of 15 or more cumulative days in one of the following countries/territories:

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, Yemen.

The following organizations support the bill: Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The American Legion, Burn Pits 360, Vote Vets, Military Veterans Advocacy, Stronghold Freedom Foundation, Dixon Center, Veterans for Common Sense, Sergeant Sullivan Circle, National Veterans Legal Services Program, American Federation of Government Employees, Wounded Warriors Project. 

Senator Gillibrand previously worked to make the 9/11 Health and Compensation Funds permanent.