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A Memorial Day appeal to Congress: Help service members with toxic burn pit exposure

The VA hasn’t acknowledged a definite connection between the pits and veterans' ailments, limiting the ability to get adequate treatment.
Image: A soldier tosses unserviceable uniforms into a burn pit in Iraq on March 10, 2008.
A soldier tosses unserviceable uniforms into a burn pit in Iraq on March 10, 2008.Sr. Airman Julianne Showalter / DOD

Thirty years after Operation Desert Storm and nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Congress may be on the verge of delivering Veterans Affairs disability and health care benefits to thousands of veterans who were sickened by exposure to burn pit toxins while serving in combat zones. As we approach Memorial Day, it’s time for the federal government to acknowledge and help treat those who suffered from this exposure while serving their country.

This has been a long-smoldering issue for the veteran community, as until now Congress has lacked the will to solve the problem.

Burn pits — in which human and medical waste, tires, plastic water bottles, ordnance, chemicals and other discarded items are burned with jet fuel and other inflammables — were once a common way to get rid of waste at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. Service members were exposed to them routinely throughout their deployments, whether their job was to maintain the burn pits themselves or they lived and worked in close proximity to them.

Service members suffered other toxic exposures as well. Some worked next to a massive lake of raw sewage at Kandahar Air Field, others next to the diesel generators that powered our facilities or port-o-potty waste that was burned with jet fuel, others still breathed in the airborne feces in the city of Kabul, which lacks a modern sewer system. In war zones, the health impacts from burn pits and other airborne toxins were far from commanders’ top concerns, and use of landfills would not have been an option for safety reasons.

The impact from these toxic exposures is immense and widespread. Service members have returned from the wars with a variety of respiratory illnesses, cancers and other diseases; some have been diagnosed years later; and others still have not yet learned of the health impacts from their deployments. Many have even died.

In the most recent member survey of our organization, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 86 percent said they were exposed to burn pits and/or airborne toxic materials and 88 percent believe they may be or are already experiencing related symptoms.

The VA, however, hasn’t acknowledged a definite connection between the burn pits and their ailments, limiting service members’ ability to get adequate treatment. This has been a long-smoldering issue for the veteran community, as until now Congress has lacked the will to solve the problem.

Recently, however, attention to this at the national level has been increasing as legislators have heard concerns about the nature of the problem from many veterans. Several bills were introduced last year to address burn pit exposure, but none made it across the finish line.

In the current Congress, 15 separate pieces of legislation have been put forward, ranging from calls for further study of the issue to mandates for delivering care and disability compensation to the estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed to the toxins generated by burn pits.

Even with bipartisan support, though, the challenge with so many bills being considered is that no single one gains enough traction to move forward, and the issue ends up being kicked down the road once again. That would be very unfortunate, as it increasingly appears that burn pit exposure is emerging as an issue of similar seriousness to that of Agent Orange exposure for Vietnam veterans. Agent Orange was an herbicide the U.S. military used to clear vegetation for military operations during the Vietnam War, and many veterans were sickened because of those exposures.

But one path shows great promise. On Wednesday, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced broad toxic exposures legislation, the Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or Honoring Our PACT Act. The legislation establishes a list of 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses that would qualify veterans for VA disability and health care benefits, and it incorporates the best of the myriad pieces of legislation, including significant provisions championed by IAVA.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., released his own similar legislation, the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act, last week, and he was able to have it acted upon by the committee in a bipartisan vote right after that.

Most important is that the landmark legislation by Tester and Takano finally delivers a presumptive service connection for VA health care and benefits to those service members sickened by toxic exposures. This means it will be presumed that illnesses listed in the legislation will have arisen as a result of a service member’s deployment, removing a massive hurdle faced by veterans to provide proof to the VA that they qualify for treatment.

IAVA strongly supports the efforts by the chairs to deliver a comprehensive legislative package that ends up on the president’s desk. We also strongly recommend that the final legislation includes the full list of illnesses eligible for benefits, as detailed in the War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, separate legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. earlier this year.

There also needs to be clarity about the manner in which the VA secretary can make decisions on which presumptive exposures should be included, especially in cases where scientific analysis is no longer possible and the available data doesn’t allow for full scientific validation. The legislation should support the secretary’s decision being made without interference from the Office of Management and Budget or other executive agencies.

Veterans must also be given access to their Individual Longitudinal Exposure Records, which allow the Department of Defense and VA to link an individual to toxic exposures to better treat them. Provision of fertility benefits to veterans who have had potential toxic exposures is also important. As data and evidence grow, Congress should address issues for those unable to have children as a likely result of these exposures.

Passing such legislation now would be an acknowledgement of the imperative to address health issues of veterans in a responsive and responsible manner, rather than in the manner of the endlessly delayed actions concerning the exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

As we call on our friends, family and fellow citizens each Sept. 11 to #NeverForget, there is no better way for Congress and the White House to do that than by ensuring proper care for those who experienced what are quickly being recognized as among the signature injuries sustained by those who answered the call.