October 09, 2020

Alongside Veterans And Veterans Advocates In Albany, Senator Gillibrand Calls 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, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, stood at the Joseph E. Zaloga American Legion Post #1520 alongside Albany County Executive and member of the New York National Guard Dan McCoy and Director of the Albany County Veterans Service Bureau Ken Secor to call for new landmark legislation, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020. Senator Gillibrand’srecently introduced legislation would streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposures. 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 help 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.”  

“Less than 1% of the U.S. population enlists in the military. How can we expect more people to defend our country if we don’t take care of them when they return home? Most people know that war is hell, but many don’t know of the added and unseen dangers of burn pits, which can cause cancers, COPD, emphysema and more. And yet, the Department of Veterans Affair denies nearly 78% of disability claims related to burn pits,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “As an Army veteran, I couldn’t be happier to have a champion like Senator Gillibrand looking out for us. Her bill will reduce the burden of proof for claims so our former service members to get the benefits they deserve.”

“Many of our veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries are suffering from the toxic exposures from burn pits. It took the Vietnam Veterans years to fight for their benefits from exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides. Vietnam veterans pushed not only for these benefits from their personal exposures to toxins, but for those suffering from PTSD as well. Let us not forget these young warriors, who are also suffering from the toxins released from the Burn Pits and in some cases radiation poisoning. No one wants to see these men and women wait decades for their earned and deserved benefits. Action is needed ASAP. Members from our organization, Military Veterans Advocacy will leave no service member or veteran behind. When these brave heroes raised their hands in an oath to defend this nation at all costs including their lives, our country promised to care for them when they returned. This country needs to be made accountable in keeping that promise. This is part of the price tag of war.” - Susie Belanger, Legislative Director, Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. 

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.