September 15, 2020

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Raul Ruiz, Jon Stewart, Veterans Advocates Announce Landmark Legislation To Help Veterans With Diseases Linked To Burn Pits And Other Toxic Exposures Obtain Benefits From VA

The Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins Act Would Establish Presumptive Of Service Connection For Veterans Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins And Streamline The Process For Obtaining VA Benefits; An Estimated 3.5 Million Veterans Could Have Been Exposed To Burn Pits That Spewed Toxic Fumes And Carcinogens Into The Air; Now The VA Is Denying Veterans’ Benefits, Even As Veterans Suffer From Diseases Linked To Burn Pit Exposure, Such As Cancer And Other Re

Today, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA), veterans advocate Jon Stewart, 9/11 activist John Feal, former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, and many veterans advocates, held a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol to announce new landmark legislation, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020. The bill would streamline the process for veterans to obtain VA benefits for illness due to exposure to 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. 

“More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits, yet the VA continues to deny them care by placing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses. Congress cannot sit by as the VA ignores its duty. The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care—period,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will finally establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining vital VA benefits. I’m proud to co-author this legislation with Congressman Ruiz and I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this bill and to apply common sense and common decency to a broken process.”

“Our veterans cannot wait,” said Dr. Ruiz. “Servicemembers are returning home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war, dying years later from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses caused by their exposure to toxic military burn pits. The VA and DoD cannot continue to neglect this self-inflicted wound on our veterans. That’s why I am glad to co-author with Senator Gillibrand the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020 to get our veterans the care they need right now.” 

“The VA, and the Pentagon, are holding these veterans to a bar that nobody can meet. We know smoking causes lung cancer. But if you have lung cancer, you can’t actually prove that it was the smoke. And that’s the bar that they’re holding these veteran to. And it’s unacceptable. And the truth is, it’s not about science. It’s about money. They don’t want to do this for these veterans because they think it’s too expensive. We always have money for war; we never have money for the war fighter. And it’s unacceptable. We support the troops until the troops need support. And then we bury it,” said veterans advocate Jon Stewart.

"If we can spend money on training ordinary men & woman to go into combat and do extraordinary things keeping us safe 24/7, then we should be able to spend money when these Heroes come home missing body parts, have a mental illness or are poisoned by the toxic aftermath from Burn Pits.” - 9/11 Responder & Advocate John Feal

“Veterans exposed to Burn Pits are still waiting for help - we’ve had thirty years to study this - now it’s a moral obligation to act.” - David Shulkin M.D., Ninth Secretary US Department of Veterans Affairs

“Decades of advocacy begins with the suffering, the wounded and the dead, our families are now calling on Congress demanding justice. Congress must act quickly. The question shouldn’t be scientific. The question should be are we fulfilling our moral obligation to protect and serve these service men and women that borne the burden of America’s defense. We must take action to chip away at the complex web of barriers, erected by entrenched political and bureaucratic interests, which deprive a class of injured Veterans of healthcare and benefits. It’s time we recognize these injuries as an instrumentality of war.” – Rosie Torres, Executive Director of Burn Pits 360

“For IAVA members, the data is clear: 86% of members have been exposed to burn pits or other toxic exposures, and 88% either have or may already have symptoms from that exposure. It is past time that veterans exposed to these deadly toxins receive the benefits that they deserve,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “We thank Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Raul Ruiz for their important leadership to ensure that veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic exposures will be able to get a presumption of illness for that exposure.” 

“Bullets and bombs are far from being the only deadly threats that our young men and women face when serving in the U.S. military. The American Legion has long been concerned about the consequences that burn pits and other toxins have on the health of those exposed. Veterans of my generation are still losing their lives due to illnesses traced back to Agent Orange exposure. We must right these wrongs and ensure that mistakes from the past do not repeat themselves. That’s why the American Legion supports the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020.” – National Commander James W. Bill Oxford, American Legion

“As Vietnam veterans, we know firsthand the toll of toxic exposure on our health and the high costs associated with our toxic wounds. Times is of the essence, and we call for swift passage of this crucial legislation with the hopes that our younger veterans will not face the decades-long fight for healthcare and benefits that continues to plague Vietnam veterans,” said VVA National President John Rowan  

“To do justice to Vietnam and 1991 Gulf War veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness, Congress had to legislate presumptions. It is past time to create a similar presumption for the sick veterans of our Nation’s more recent wars and military operations in countries having toxic environments created by burn pits or other conditions — natural or man-made.” - Peter Sullivan of SGT Sullivan Circle 

“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 then when they returned. This country needs to be made accountable in keeping that promise. This is part of the pricetag of war.” - Susie Belanger, Legislative Director, Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc.

“We applaud Sen. Gillibrand’s and Rep. Ruiz's commitment to servicemembers and veterans who have been dying and suffering from the devastating illnesses as a result of their exposure to toxic emissions from burn pits,” said National Veterans Legal Services Program Executive Director Bart Stichman. “Sen. Gillibrand’s and Rep. Ruiz's legislation does for victims of toxic exposures and burn pits what the Agent Orange Act did for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. This presumption of exposure and service connection is long overdue for veterans who were exposed to toxic emissions.”

"It's important that we all support our veterans and families who are confronting the challenges from exposure to burn pits and other toxins during their service." COL Sam Whitehurst, Vice President, Programs & Services, Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services

“For many veterans, there has been -- for them -- a clear timeline connecting their toxic exposures during their military deployments to their adverse health outcomes that followed them home. This critically important legislation will provide the missing link to help these veterans now struggling with cancers and debilitating respiratory diseases. In this year of the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Shield and the beginning of the Gulf War, we are deeply grateful to Senator Gillibrand for ensuring this legislation will help so many veterans who served, both pre- and post-9/11.” - Anthony Hardie, National Chair & Director Veterans for Common Sense

“At VoteVets, we have been heartbroken by the painful stories of our friends and loved ones faced with severe health consequences as a direct result of toxic exposure during military service. The awful impacts of exposure to burn pits and other toxins have reached a crisis point in the veteran and military community — and our heroes deserve the comprehensive solution this bill will provide. Caring for our men and women in uniform — both during and after their service — is a matter of military readiness. It is a matter of national security. And it’s a matter of keeping our sacred promise to those who’ve fought for our freedoms.” — Will Goodwin, Director of Government Relations for VoteVets

“The Stronghold Freedom Foundation is grateful for Senator Gillibrand’s proposed Presumptive Benefits for War Fighter Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. Upon passage, this legislation will provide some respite for Karshi-Khanabad Airbase (K2) veterans denied the care and benefits earned through their service and will greatly benefit many more. The Stronghold Freedom Foundation will continue to advocate for full recognition by the government and agencies which placed K2 veterans in harm’s way and will continue working with legislators, the DoD, and VA to obtain complete recognition, preventative care, screening, and registry for all K2 veterans.” – The Stronghold Freedom Foundation

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 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 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 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 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 ProgramAmerican Federation of Government Employees, Wounded Warriors Project.

Stewart, Feal and Gillibrand previously worked together to make the 9/11 Health and Compensation Funds permanent.