Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand held a press conference in New York City to push for her new landmark legislation, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020. Gillibrand’s recently introduced legislation would streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposures. Approximately3.5 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. Senator Gillibrand was joined by David Shulkin M.D., Ninth Secretary, US Department of Veterans Affairs, Jeremy Butler, Chief Executive Officer, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and James Fitzgerald, Deputy Director, NYC Veterans Alliance.
“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.”
“No one in their right mind is denying that burn pits have put veterans at risk of cancers and debilitating lung diseases—they just don’t want to do the right thing and foot the bill,” said Congressman Max Rose, an Army combat veteran and Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “We won’t stand for it, because to turn our backs on our veterans would be morally bankrupt and flies in the face of our American values. I’m proud to help lead the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act in the House and I’ll fight like hell with Senator Gillibrand and to make sure this gets to the President’s desk.”
“When we send our military into conflict they know who they are fighting against, but when they return home they often face an invisible bureaucracy. We simply can’t abandon our veterans when they need our support. Those suffering from Burn Pits must get the help they need,” said David Shulkin M.D., Ninth Secretary, US Department of Veterans Affairs.
“After decades of exposing our own service members to harmful toxins and contaminants, the US is long overdue to provide them with appropriate health care and benefits. The cancers, illnesses, and debilitating symptoms that resulted from these exposures have killed some and resulted in significantly degraded life for far too many. IAVA fully supports S. 4572/H.R. 8261, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020 as our country begins to repair the damage inflicted upon those who chose to serve our country in uniform,” said Jeremy Butler, Chief Executive Officer, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“Veterans deserve swift and meaningful action to ensure we finally receive the full care and resourcing we need after being exposed to burn pits and other devastating toxins during our military service. At the start of this pandemic, NYC Veterans Alliance surveyed local veterans and service members–and a shocking 68% of respondents told us they had toxic exposures during their military service, from burn pits to Agent Orange,” said James Fitzgerald, Deputy Director, NYC Veterans Alliance. “Of these veterans, 62% said they believed these toxic exposures made them more vulnerable to COVID-19. It is paramount we get our veterans the help they deserve which is why we strongly support the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020.”
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 thatmore 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.