Millions of veterans were exposed to toxic burn pits during their service. It’s time to stand by them.
Many are sick and dying from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses—and are being forced to fight for the care they need.
When Retired Army Reserve Captain Le Roy Torres went to serve in Iraq he was healthy. But on Balad Air Base, he was exposed to the toxic fumes of a burn pit, where jet fuel was used to set fire to everything from medical waste and plastics to aircraft engines and computers. Captain Torres and his fellow service members lived, ate, slept and worked right next to it. And they were forced to breathe in its toxic cocktail of dust, smoke, and debris.
Just three weeks after he returned home, Captain Torres was in the emergency room with a severe cough and chest pains. That was just the beginning. He was later diagnosed with Constrictive Bronchiolitis and Toxic Brain Injury.
More than 3 million veterans and service members were exposed to the toxic fumes of burn pits on bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. Now, many are sick and dying from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses.
But when these veterans ask the VA for the care they are owed, they are denied. The VA says they have to show: medical evidence of a disease or disability; evidence of their physical presence near a specific exposure site; and evidence of the link between the illness and exposure.
Then, once these veterans have jumped through all of those hoops, the VA says ‘the science isn’t there,’ and denies their claims. Captain Torres and his wife Rosie have spent years fighting for the VA to cover his care.
It was the same story for Danielle and her late husband, Sargent First Class Heath Robinson, an army medic who was exposed to the toxic fumes of a burn pit while on guard duty at Camp Liberty on the Victory Base Complex in Iraq. When he developed a rare lung cancer, his oncologist immediately identified the cause as exposure to toxic fumes. But while Heath was struggling to fight his cancer, the VA began denying medications his oncologist prescribed. And, they denied Danielle caregiver benefits even as she provided round-the-clock care for him.
The VA continues to claim there is not enough evidence that these ailments are service-connected. But we do have evidence.
We know what was burned. We know what was in the soil. We know that the toxic fumes and environmental conditions were so hazardous that the DOD changed the rules for burning and switched to incinerators in many places. And, we have seen the ailments our 9/11 responders and Vietnam veterans developed from exposure to many of the exact same toxins.
These men and women, many of whom are fighting for their lives, should not have to fight the VA for care that is linked to their service. For the VA to drag its feet before they provide care is an outrageous dereliction of duty. Many of our veterans do not have time to spare.
This is the same battle Vietnam veterans had to fight after being exposed to Agent Orange. Physically fit men and women who were exposed to toxic chemicals returned from the war, came down with rare cancers and other ailments, and were told to wait for the science to prove it was related.
Congress overrode the VA in 1991 and gave Vietnam veterans presumptive coverage for their aliments. We must do the same for the veterans of the War on Terror.
I’m introducing legislation to do just that. The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will remove the burden of proof from our veterans by establishing a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits.
No more forcing veterans to beg the DOD for paperwork to prove their exposure, to spend late nights researching the links between lung scarring and the toxic smoke from burn pits, or to get notes from private doctors trying to convince the VA that this disease could only be caused by toxic environmental exposures.
All that service members would have to submit to receive care is 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.
To put it simply — this bill says if you were there and you are sick, you are covered. It should be that simple. Rosie and her husband should not have to fight for his care. Danielle and her husband should not have had to fight for his.
This bill applies common sense and common decency to a very broken process, and I am ready to fight for it. I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join me. It’s what our service members and veterans need and deserve.