Toxic-exposed veterans have held up their part of the pact — now it’s our turn
Over the past 20 years, our country has recruited, trained, equipped, and deployed over 3 million servicemembers across the globe. In that period, we spent $6.4 trillion on weapons and contingency operations while sending servicemembers into harm’s way. But so far, Congress has yet to address and acknowledge that the loss of lives and the financial cost incurred during this time were only part of the true cost of war. America’s message to toxic-exposed servicemembers and veterans has been simple — we thank you for your service, but the price tag for addressing your exposure is just too high.
We made a promise to our servicemembers that we would care for them when they came home. But when millions of servicemembers were exposed to toxic substances and got sick, they learned they didn’t have access to the care and benefits they were entitled to. For too long, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have been slow to act on toxic exposure citing high costs or lack of absolute, scientific proof. The result — a broken promise and a disability benefit claims process that is cumbersome and places the burden to prove toxic exposure on veterans. The Honoring our PACT Act can change that.
Recently, I asked toxic-exposed veterans to share their experiences with Congress. The feedback was overwhelming— over 900 responses in three weeks from veterans in 49 states. I heard heart-wrenching stories from veterans who detailed how toxic exposures could overwhelm the senses. Veterans described feeling “like a nuisance to the VA health system” while trying to rightfully claim the care they were promised. I heard from a grieving widow shocked she “should have to bury [her] 22-year-old husband because of his exposure to unsafe conditions while in service to his country.”
My bipartisan bill finally provides access to VA health care to over 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic substances. It would require that VA presume veterans were exposed to toxic substances, rather than forcing veterans to prove this themselves. It makes crucial improvements to streamline VA’s review process, so that Congress doesn’t have to keep intervening. With the support of veteran service organizations, advocates Jon Stewart and John Feal, and over 70 co-sponsors, this legislation has the momentum — Congress just needs to find the will to do what is right.
Cries for “offsets” and “pay fors” did not stop Congress from passing a $1.9 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy in 2017. We know Congress is willing to find money when it wants to, as it demonstrated by adding $25 billion above the president’s request to the last National Defense Authorization. Some of my colleagues seem reticent to foot the bill for toxic-exposed veterans, but just like the oath servicemembers took to protect and defend our nation, we made a promise. We don’t hesitate to fund the Department of Defense, and we shouldn’t try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the check for toxic-exposed veterans. We cannot renege on our responsibility because of perceived sticker shock.
Vietnam veterans waited more than 40 years for benefits related to Agent Orange exposure because of Congress’s piecemeal solutions. We can’t accept legislative half-measures that narrow benefits for some veterans and may exclude others altogether. Our servicemembers and veterans have waited too long to simply watch Congress trade away the promise of comprehensive toxic exposure legislation in favor of a limited extension of benefits.
Toxic-exposed veterans have held up their part of the pact — they deserve more than “thank you’s” and patriotic displays on Veterans Day — they deserve our action. We made a promise to deliver comprehensive toxic exposure legislation, and I intend to keep that promise.
Mark Takano is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.