April 13, 2021

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand And Marco Rubio, Representatives Raul Ruiz And Brian Fitzpatrick, Jon Stewart, John Feal, And Veterans Advocates Call On Congress To Pass Landmark Legislation To Help Veterans With Diseases Linked To Burn Pits And Other Toxic Exposures Obtain Benefits From Va

Gillibrand And Rubio, Ruiz And Fitzpatrick Recently Introduced The Bicameral, Bipartisan Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed To Burn Pits And Other Toxins Act; An Estimated 3.5 Million Veterans Could Have Been Exposed To Burn Pits That Spewed Toxic Fumes And Carcinogens Into The Air; Years Later, Sick Veterans Suffering From Diseases Linked To Burn Pit Exposure Have Been Burdened By Denials From The VA For Veterans’ Benefits; The Landmark Bill Would Establish A Service Connection For S

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Today, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), U.S. Representatives Raul Ruiz, M.D, (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), alongside Jon Stewart, 9/11 activist John Feal, members of BurnPits 360, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and numerous veterans advocates stood together to call for landmark bipartisan, bicameral legislation, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. The bill would streamline the process for veterans to obtain benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 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. 

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.

“The stories we heard today are proof that the system is failing veterans and their families. Veterans who are sick with illnesses due to exposure to toxic chemicals while serving this country do not have time to spare,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “The connection between exposure to burn pits and the devastating health effects of respiratory illnesses and rare cancers is clear. No one should have to spend years jumping through hoops, doing research, and paying for doctors and biopsies to prove to the VA that their illness is service-related. And no one who is grieving a spouse lost to these diseases should have to fight the VA to get the benefits their family is owed. This is more than a health care crisis, it’s a moral outrage. 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 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 war fighters had a job to do, and they did it honorably and without hesitation," said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. "We will never be able to repay them and their families for their sacrifice, but we can -- and we must -- take care of them now. This historic and long overdue legislation will cut through the red tape to ensure veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins while defending our nation will receive the care they need and deserve. No more excuses. No more delays. It is time to act.” 

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

Our veterans are heroes and deserve to be treated as such, yet the VA and DoD continue to deny their earned care. Our bipartisan Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining vital VA benefits,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. “I am proud to join Rep. Ruiz and Senator Gillibrand and a broad national coalition of VSOs to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve. No veteran should die waiting for care.”

“This legislation includes presumption and actually fixes this urgent and immoral issue. Anything else just delays and denies the treatment and benefits our warriors need,” 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. We are fighting two fronts. Passing vital legislation, and changing the culture on how these men & woman are taken care of after they come home,” said 9/11 Responder & Advocate John Feal.

We are excited and hopeful for today’s event. It’s been over 10 years of building on the issue and sustained momentum for the veteran community and the families affected by toxic exposure. We will not negotiate with ourselves and will not settle for anything less than presumption. Our hope is that the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will pass.” – Le Roy Torres, Co-Founder of Burn Pits 360

“Our work has centered on service members with shortness of breath following deployment. Over 100 service members have had lung biopsies showing deployment related toxic lung injury including bronchiolitis. They leave military service due to exercise limitation but usually fail to receive disability benefits.” - Dr. Robert Miller, Professor of Medicine Vanderbilt University Medical Center

“This legislation regarding Burn Pit exposure is required to fulfill our sacred obligation to the men and women who faithfully served,” said David Shulkin M.D., ninth secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

“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.” 

“The VFW’s top legislative priority is comprehensive toxic exposure reform. The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act is a great step in taking care of the millions of men and women exposed to toxic hazards during their service overseas. The VFW is thankful Senators Gillibrand and Rubio have highlighted this issue and we are looking forward to the day new toxic exposure legislation is signed into law.” - Pat Murray, Director of VFW’s National Legislative Service

"Veteran Warriors supports this legislation as it is a step forward to give those affected by toxic exposures during military service more access to benefits and services that they have earned.  Veteran's should not have to jump through hoops to get medical care for specific conditions when it has been proven that these conditions are linked to toxic exposure.  While this legislation is not an end-all be-all resolution, it is a step in the right direction to providing much needed care to those exposed." - Holly Ferrell, Executive Director of Veteran Warriors, Inc.

“We look forward to Congress reintroducing and passing the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. Congress must act now to ensure that veterans exposed to toxic exposures receive the care that they need and rightfully deserve. We thank Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Raul Ruiz for their leadership on this issue and look forward to working with them to get this critical legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President.”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. In fact, we are still fighting for those who served in Guam, Panama, Thailand, and Okinawa.  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 price tag of war.” - Susie Belanger, Legislative Director, Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc. 

“We applaud Sen. Gillibrand, Sen. Rubio, Rep. Ruiz, and Rep. Fitzpatrick for their commitment to service members 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. “This 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.”

"Too often, veterans have been alone in dealing with the consequences of service to their country. This is now an opportunity to stand with them, to honor their commitment, and together confront the challenges they are facing from exposure to burn pits and other toxins during their military service." - COL Sam Whitehurst, Vice President, Programs & Services, Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services 

“For many veterans with toxic exposures, there has been -- for them -- a clear timeline connecting their toxic exposures during their military deployments to the debilitating health outcomes that followed them home. Far too many veterans who were exposed to open burn pits and a veritable toxic soup have developed terrible respiratory conditions, Parkinson's and other diseases, and cancers, including the brain cancer that has taken so many of their lives.  This critically important legislation will provide the missing link to help these veterans.  Indeed, this is the only current, major toxic exposure legislation to actually name presumptive conditions for VA disability claims rather than lay out a bureaucratic process that relies on trusting VA to do the right thing -- the same VA that currently denies Gulf War and Burn Pits-related claims at 80 percent denial rates.  In this year of the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), we are deeply grateful to Senator Gillibrand and the many powerful cosponsors for ensuring this legislation will help so many veterans who served, including Gulf War, other pre-9/11, and post-9/11 veterans alike.” - Anthony Hardie, National Chair & Director Veterans for Common Sense

“At VoteVets, we believe caring for our men and women in uniform — both during and after their service — is a national security priority, and it is essential to keep our sacred promise to those who’ve fought for our freedoms. Veterans and military families are suffering severe health consequences as a direct result of toxic exposure to burn pits. We're grateful to Senator Gillibrand and her colleagues for their leadership on this critical issue. Our heroes deserve the comprehensive solution this bill will provide."  - Mary Kaszynski, 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 

“Blinded Veterans Association sincerely thanks Congressman Ruiz, Congressman Fitzpatrick, Senator Gillibrand, and Senator Rubio for their dedication to our service members and veterans by ensuring they receive the compensation for toxic exposure related diseases they deserve,” said BVA National Service Director, Veterans Benefits & Policy James Vale. “Toxic exposure related illnesses need to be provided for just as any physical or mental injuries are with proper healthcare and compensation benefits. Our service members and veterans battling severe illnesses need the support of Congress and the VA immediately to correct injustices created by the barriers to care for military toxic exposures.”

Several veterans advocates shared their stories of the challenges that they and their family members have faced when trying to receive benefits from the VA: 

Army Captain Le Roy Torres was deployed to Balad, Iraq from 2007-2008 and served the State of Texas as a State Trooper for 14 years. He suffers from complications from illnesses caused by toxic burn pit exposure during his deployment. After experiencing delay, denial of benefits, and ineffective treatment from his physicians for his illnesses, Le Roy alongside his wife, Rosie, founded Burn Pits 360. The organization works to ensure that no other service member or Veteran suffers delay, denial of benefits, and ineffective treatment for toxic fume exposure from physicians.

As the surviving spouse of Ret. Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Cancelino USMC, who served as a Marine for 20 years, Gina Cancelino has been fighting to receive VA disability benefits for herself and two children. Joseph was deployed to Iraq from March 2003-August 2003. His barracks were located across from a burn pit and barrels of burning human waste. While serving his final year in the Marines, he joined the NYPD and served as a PO until his promotion to Sergeant. In January 2017 he was diagnosed with stage 3c metastatic testicular cancer, which at the time of diagnosis had travelled to his pelvis, abdomen, and lungs. The cancer then progressed to his brain. While receiving treatment, it was discovered that there was a secondary thyroid cancer as well. Despite several rounds and types of chemotherapy, radiation, lymph node resection, brain resection, immunotherapy, palliative chemotherapy, and a trial treatment that he was only the fourth patient to receive, Joseph passed away in July 2019. His surviving spouse, Gina, can no longer add Joseph's name to the DoD burn pit registry since he has passed away. The VA has denied her benefits until she proves that her husband's cancer was a direct service connection to burn pits and toxic exposure while serving in Iraq. 

Veteran Mark Jackson was active duty in the Army from 1997 through 2005. He was deployed to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan from July 2003 to April 2004, where uranium, chemical weapon debris, and chemical ponds were present, and black goo oozed from the ground. While deployed, Jackson’s health quickly deteriorated and, as his health worsened when he returned home, he sought help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In 2008, the VA granted only 10% disability for service related to his thyroid disorder and denied the rest of his claims. Since then, he has advocated for care from the VA for other service members suffering from diseases related to toxic exposure. 

Veteran Cindy Aman served as Military Police in Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait. Upon returning home, began work as civilian police, but started having shortness of breath despite being very fit. When she sought help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), some caseworkers thought she had lung disease, but the head of pathology didn’t agree. She reached out to Senator Coons (who she now works for) and he helped get the VA to pay for a lung biopsy. When her biopsy showed metals in her lungs and brown gunk she had to leave the police force. After two years, Aman eventually received some benefits from the VA. She is now an advocate for the family of veteran Jason Howard who is on hospice with glioblastoma — the same brain cancer that Beau Biden had.

Background: 

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. The largest of these burn pits were 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 nearly 235,00 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 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 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 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, lymphoma 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, Vote Vets, Stronghold Freedom Foundation, Grunt Style, Cease Fire Campaign, Veteran Warriors Inc., National Association County Veterans Service Officers, Feal Good Foundation, Blinded Veterans Association.

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