In case you missed it, starting on Monday, August 2nd, 2021, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs began processing disability claims for conditions on a presumptive basis for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service in Southwest Asia. This marks the first VA decision to add presumptive illnesses that benefit those exposed to burn pits during their service – the method that Senator Gillibrand has encouraged the secretary to use and is the basis for her bill, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. The bipartisan and bicameral bill would create a presumptive service connection for over 20 categories of diseases, including asthma, and streamline the process for veterans to obtain benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits that spewed toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air. In June of 2021, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted to send the Honoring Our PACT Act to the full floor and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee voted out the COST of War Act in May. Both bills included significant provisions from Senator Gillibrand’s burn pits legislation.
“This is life-changing news for countless American veterans who are relying on the VA to provide benefits for illnesses incurred while serving our country,” said Senator Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits and, starting this week, the VA has taken a critical step toward removing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from three types of respiratory illnesses. While this is a great first step, we still have work to do. Congress must pass the full Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act to cover the true cost of war and to get veterans the full spectrum of care they need.”
In the VA announcement, Secretary McDonough said, “I announced my intent to initiate rulemaking on May 27 to consider adding respiratory conditions to the list of chronic disabilities. Through this process I determined that the evidence provided was sufficient to establish presumptions of service connection for these three respiratory conditions. This is the right decision, and VA will continue to use a holistic approach in determining toxic exposure presumptives moving forward.”
The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act 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 documentation that they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and they suffer from a qualifying health condition. Campaign medals are awarded to members of the armed forces who deploy for military operations in a designated combat zone or geographical theater.
According to the VA, benefits to service in Southwest Asia refers to operations in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the airspace above these locations.
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 pits were utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others were used across the world. One of the largest of these burn pits was located at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and during its operation, consisted of 10-acres of burning trash, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
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 255,000 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 Freedom at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, a former Soviet base in Uzbekistan that had held chemical weapons enriched with 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 veterans 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 connection 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 personal or other 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 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 provide 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 would cover a wide range of cancers and respiratory illnesses as presumptive conditions, including: asthma that was diagnosed after service, head cancer of any type, neck cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, lymphoma cancer of any type, lymphomatic cancer of any type, 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.
The following organizations support the bill: IAVA, The American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Wounded Warrior Project, Reserve Officers Association, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Burn Pits 360, Green Beret Foundation, Go2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, Dixon Center, National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), Military Veterans Advocacy, Veterans for Common Sense, Sgt. Sullivan Circle, VoteVets, Stronghold Freedom Foundation, Grunt Style, Cease Fire Campaign, Veteran Warriors Inc., National Association County Veterans Service Officers, FealGood Foundation, Blinded Veterans Association.
Jon Stewart, John Feal, and Gillibrand previously worked together to make the 9-11 Victim Compensation Fund permanent.