Congress must address the toxic exposure our veterans have endured
War can take a terrible toll on those who fight for our country. Many wounds are visible — battle scars that include loss of limbs, disfigurement, loss of sight and other disabilities and, of course, death.
There are also unseen effects that may not reveal themselves until well after service members return from deployments or leave an installation. These are the emotional and mental injuries that may not be visible, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This is also the case for countless war veterans who have been exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years.
Burn pits are disposal sites used to burn everything from garbage, plastics, batteries and jet fuel to paint, vehicles, weapons and human and medical waste. At many remote combat posts, burn pits are used to dispose of items because a more appropriate facility simply was not available.
Unfortunately, as the health consequences of burn pits continue to be studied, veterans are enduring a wave of rare cancers and other illnesses. Some have died from these illnesses.
For example, a recent story on Military.com discusses an Army noncommissioned officer (NCO) who deployed twice to Balad Air Base in Iraq and died at age 36 from pancreatic cancer. The average age of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is 70. According to the soldier’s husband, his wife kept a journal and wrote extensively about the burn pits that were more than 10 acres in size and burned 100 to 200 tons of waste per day. She wrote in her journal that filters were cleaned every two days and resembled black soup when they were removed.
President Biden has stated that his son, Beau, may have been a victim of the toxins from burn pits in Iraq. Beau Biden served in the National Guard, joining when he was 32 years old. He died of brain cancer in 2015. Like the Army NCO, he was stationed at Balad.
Each war poses unique hazards and exposures for service members. Each conflict has led to tens of thousands of veterans suffering from illnesses or disabilities long after they returned home. Despite the time it can take for potential health consequences to become evident after exposure to toxins from burn pits, many veterans are not receiving health care and benefits after clear risks and exposures during their service.
In February, however, Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) reintroduced legislation addressing the exposure-recognition barrier preventing many veterans from getting VA health care and benefits for illnesses and diseases related to exposure to burn pits. The legislation, S. 437, is called the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act. Similar legislation proposed in previous years has failed.
In introducing the legislation, Sen. Sullivan said he and Sen. Manchin are “trying to be proactive and ready to take care of veterans so there is not a repeat of the tragic, prolonged delay in relief experienced by many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange.” The proposed legislation “does away with the unreasonable burden on veterans to prove that they were exposed to burn pits while serving at an installation where the pits were in use,” Sullivan said.
The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) strongly supports this legislation, as do many other veterans service organizations. This legislation would direct the VA to concede exposure for service members who deployed to Southwest Asia. Only 22 percent of claims by service members who were exposed to burn pits are approved by the VA, and proving exposure is a difficult task.
However, we must not stop there.
The time for comprehensive toxic exposure reform is here, and another essential component for this endeavor is covered under the recently introduced Toxic Exposure in the American Military, or TEAM, Act. This bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), with a companion bill introduced by Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), provides an essential expansion of health care access for service members who experienced toxic exposures in Southwest Asia. It provides bold reforms to a presumptive process that has not been touched in a quarter-century. The bill also creates an advisory committee to provide recommendations to the VA secretary, along with increased transparency and reporting for presumptive claims.
MOAA has made the burn pits/toxic exposure issue one of its top three advocacy issues for this year and will address it when its members meet with congressional representatives later this spring. Our organization believes the time has come for action on this issue — not for more studies and data collection efforts.
MOAA is encouraged by statements by VA Secretary Denis McDonough on the toxic exposure issue. We look forward to working with Secretary McDonough and his team because those who serve their country and go into harm’s way should be provided the care and benefits they deserve.
A soldier who was exposed to burn pits summarizes his feelings this way: “When you volunteer for the military, you volunteer to possibly die. As it turns out, I got shot. It’s just a real slow bullet,” he told Military.com.
The toxic exposure issue deserves to be a top issue for our congressional leaders. Our veterans deserve nothing less.
Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral and a board member of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.”
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