In case you missed it, PBS NewsHour aired a segment highlighting the major push from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, veterans advocate and comedian Jon Stewart, VA officials, and veterans advocates to pass legislation to help the millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving overseas. In the piece, Gillibrand discusses the Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins Act, which would establish presumption of service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits. This bill would remove the “burden of proof” of toxic exposure from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure.
Watch the full video here or read the transcript below:
PBS: Veterans exposed to ‘burn pits’ struggle to get benefits approved by the VA
Dan Sagalyn and John Yang | May 27, 2021
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tens of thousands of U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq are sick, and have had to fight to get their illnesses recognized as linked to their service.
It is a critical step to qualify for medical and disability benefits. Congress is considering legislation to change all that.
That story now from producer Dan Sagalyn and our John Yang.
JENNIFER HOWARD: He said: “I can’t get up. The only time this headache is manageable is if I’m laying flat on my back.”
And so it was a trip to the urgent care, and then to the E.R. They came back and said: “There’s a mass in his brain and we think it is cancerous.”
JOHN YANG: Jennifer Howard has to speak for her husband, Jason. At age 44, he’s barely conscious.
HOWARD: I have other types of pizza too, if you get through all of this.
YANG: The reason? Glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer that usually occurs in much older adults.
HOWARD: They came in and said: “Life expectancy with this type of tumor is not long. Make the best of your time that you have.”
YANG: Jason served two tours in Iraq as a Marine. He was always fit and healthy and loved to run marathons.
HOWARD: When they came back, they talked a bit about how everything was on fire. They burned everything.
YANG: Jason took these photos of the thick noxious smoke that billowed from burn pits on the bases in Iraq where he served in 2003 and 2004.
VIDEO EXCERPT: Hey, we have a burn pit down here.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military burned all its trash in open air pits.
VIDEO EXCERPT: I have no idea what they’re burning over there.
YANG: From plastic water bottles, styrofoam, and batteries, to tires, electronic equipment and paint cans.
Sometimes, jet fuel was used as an accelerant. The smoke permeated the bases where the service members slept, ate and worked.
VIDEO EXCERPT WITH JASON: Hey, Jason.
HOWARD: It’s your parents.
YANG: Jennifer believes burn pits caused her husband’s cancer.
And she says the Department of Veteran Affairs made her jump through hoops to prove a direct connection between his exposure and his cancer before granting benefits.
HOWARD: I talked to that 1-800 VA number to see where our claim is. They said: “Oh, well, we’re finally sending it over so that you can get scheduled for his evaluation.”
And I said: “Are we going to do it before he dies?” And I said it just like that, and not yell. And I was told — told to calm down. They wanted me to drive him to the VA for an in-person exam, which he wasn’t like this, but I wouldn’t have been able to put him in a car. So, I had to file an appeal to have an in-home exam done.
YANG: According to data obtained by the “NewsHour,” of the 2.5 million veterans who served in the global war on terrorism, almost 43,000 filed a claim for cancer.
One prominent veteran who died from glioblastoma? President Biden’s eldest child, Beau. He was exposed to burn pit smoke when he deployed to Kosovo in the late 1990s and to Iraq in 2009.
In a 2018 interview with Judy Woodruff, for the first time, Mr. Biden spoke publicly about burn pits and his son’s cancer.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think they play a significant role. Science has recognized there are certain carcinogens that, when they’re — where people are exposed to them, depending on the quantities and the amount in the water, the air, can have a carcinogenic impact on the body, and just like we know now you don’t want to live underneath a smokestack where carcinogens are coming out of it.
We say, you have got to put a scrubber on. You can’t let this stuff get in the air.
YANG: He raised the issue in his presidential campaign.
BIDEN: A lot of folks who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iraq and even in parts of Kosovo are exposed to what we call burn pits.
We should make it a law, because there’s more people who are coming home with brain injuries and tumors as a consequence of this. But the point is, every single veteran should not have to prove or wait until science demonstrates beyond a doubt that that’s the direct cause.
VIDEO EXCERPT: That is what we live next to.
YANG: Lung disease is another condition Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have in large numbers. More than 780,000 of them have filed a VA claim for respiratory conditions.
James Raines is one of them.
JAMES RAINES: All the contaminants from the burn pits, I was basically breathing those in every other day at a high level, and didn’t even realize it at the time.
YANG: This burn pit was at the end of the runway at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where Raines was deployed in 2006 and 2007. Raines says he could always smell the smoke when he jogged on the base. When he returned home, his health deteriorated.
RAINES: I gradually noticed that it became more difficult and more difficult to run. My times were slipping, and I started having problems. And I was close to basically reaching a point where I was going to fail the Army physical fitness test.
YANG: Raines was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare lung condition that makes it hard to breathe, especially when exercising.
RAINES: I can walk some. But, in the past, I would mow my yard with a push mower just for exercise. But that’s very difficult now.
YANG: The VA denied Raines disability compensation. His appeal is pending.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: This is a moral outrage.
YANG: Now, lawmakers want to change how the VA deals with veterans exposed to burn pits.
GILLIBRAND: Our veterans coming home from war only have to start a new battle with the VA for the care and benefits they have earned.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: This is the price of sending men and women to dangerous places to do dangerous things.
YANG: Two senators, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, are sponsoring a bill that would require the VA to give benefits to any veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or in a nearby nation, and have conditions such as cancer or lung disease.
The legislation would also cover veterans who served in the Middle East since 1990, the year of Operation Desert Shield, the U.S. troop buildup before the invasion of Iraq. Gillibrand says veterans and their families shouldn’t have the burden of proving that burn pits caused their illnesses.
GILLIBRAND: We know what was burned in a burn pit. We know what’s emitted from these kinds of burn pits. We have the epidemiology. And that’s why it has to be presumptive. It should not be on them. It should be on us. It is our duty and our responsibility.
YANG: A high-profile backer is lobbying for their bill.
JON STEWART: You can’t support the troops and then abandon them when the troops need support.
YANG: Former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart advocated for the first responders who searched the rubble in Lower Manhattan after 9-11 and developed similar illnesses.
STEWART: It’s an embarrassment to the country, and it is a stain on this institution.
The VA should function as an advocate for care for the veteran, not as an obstacle, not as like an insurance company, where you come in and somebody sits back and says, prove it. Prove that just because you slept next to a toxic waste stew for 24 hours a day, and now you have a glioblastoma, prove it.
I mean, they have set an impossible bar.
YANG: While the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t estimated the cost of providing disability compensation for these veterans, the bill’s advocates say it’s irrelevant; it’s a cost of war.
STEWART: As far as the money is concerned, it should be baked into the pie. You know, you don’t get to order a meal and then, when it comes back, oh, yes, I’m not paying for this — you know, the potatoes.
Hey, man, you ordered it. You don’t get to, at the back end of it, go, yes, we don’t have any money for that. That’s the total cost of war. That’s the true cost of war. And you can’t just have money for war and the toys of war and not for the consequences of it. And that’s really what we’re dealing with. It’s — it’s absurd.
RONALD BURKE: I do not believe the VA treats folks like we’re an insurance company.
YANG: VA Deputy Undersecretary Ronald Burke says, of the 2.5 million Iraq and Afghan war veterans, more than half have had their claims approved for respiratory problems alone. He says the VA is working to improve how claims are processed.
BURKE: The secretary has committed publicly and privately that this is a top issue for him. And, in essence, we understand that the current process is cumbersome. It is not — it is not a friendly process, if you will, from the veteran’s perspective.
YANG: To help them gather more data, the VA encourages veterans to register on their burn pit registry and to file a claim. They are not enthusiastic about the proposed legislation.
BURKE: This is a very complex issue. And our position is, using the new holistic approach that the secretary has demanded that we utilize, we’re going to find better outcomes.
To rush to a piecemeal approach right now, we don’t believe is meeting the intent or the goal of a holistic, thorough, but expedient review.
YANG: Dr. David Shulkin, VA secretary under Donald Trump, disagrees.
DR. DAVID SHULKIN: I think that this legislation is what’s needed now. It gives veterans the immediate help that they’re looking for. They have waited too long to get this type of help.
There needs to be better definition on how VA can help veterans. That needs to come from Congress, and that needs to be supported then by the president, for the law to change.
YANG: For Jen Howard, this legislation can’t come soon enough.
HOWARD: I know that there are other caregivers out there and vets that don’t have the support that I have. That’s why, when Jason and I talked, we both felt that he wanted to be counted and he wanted other vets to be able to be counted.
So, that’s why this legislation is so important.
YANG: Twenty days after we spoke to her, her husband, Jason, died. He was 44. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang.
WOODRUFF: Just heartbreaking.
And just today, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs said it is considering giving vets who served in Southwest Asia since 2001 automatic benefits for some chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis.
Senator Gillibrand said that is a good first step, but it is still far from enough.