A new bill introduced to the Senate this week would establish that some veterans were exposed to airborne hazards or toxins from burn pits during their service and could create a path to care at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans exposed to burn pits could finally get recognition for their exposure to potentially dangerous toxins through the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act, SB 2950.
The bill would officially "recognize and concede" that if a service member served near an active burn pit, they may have been exposed to VA-recognized harmful toxins or hazards that could be the cause of illnesses and other health concerns.
The bill would not automatically grant benefits or health care to veterans who served near burn pits or create a disability presumption. But it could forge a new pathway and "remove red tape" for veterans' disability claims, Disabled American Veterans Deputy National Director for Benefits Shane Liermann told Connecting Vets. DAV helped develop the bill.
"This could remove the obstacles of a veteran trying to prove exposure to toxins already on a VA list," Liermann said.
Right now, the only way for troops or veterans to establish benefits related to toxic exposure from burn pits is to prove their illness is directly linked to being exposed to a burn pit because of their service. That can be difficult when veterans don't always know exactly what they may have been in the air because of the pits, or when, and because records of locations in deployments can be incomplete, Liermann said. Locations of burn pits also aren't always well documented.
"We know it can be very difficult to establish service connection when you can't prove what toxins you were exposed to," he said. "There has to be a better, faster way to get these veterans benefits."
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Senators Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“We owe it to the men and women of our Armed Forces to continue to work towards addressing the impacts many face after being exposed to burn pits while serving our country overseas,” Sullivan said in a statement. “The (bill) reaffirms our commitment to those in uniform and ensures we will not wait decades to tackle this issue head-on.”
“We’ve made a promise to the men and women who have bravely fought to defend our nation, often in harsh conditions, that when they return home we take care of them," Manchin said in a statement. "West Virginians have seen first-hand how long it’s taken for the Vietnam-era Veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals like Agent Orange to receive the care and benefits they deserve, and the toll it took on them and their families. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to this generation of Veterans."
So far there are no completed studies connecting diseases to burn pit exposure, Liermann said. But veterans can't wait for years of studies.
"There's no reason to wait for a service-connected presumption," he said. "There's a huge sense in the veteran community that something needs to be done now."
"Determining the location of burn pits and the scope of health effects associated to exposure remains the subject of much investigation and research by the (VA), Defense Department and other government agencies and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine," the bill reads. And that information "may never be completely known" because of fragmented data on air and soil quality in locations with burn pits.
"VA can eliminate another arduous step for veterans and help them get the lifechanging health care and benefits they need more quickly," DAV D.C. Executive Director Randy Reese said. "DAV is well aware — and has been for many years — of the adverse health effects of burn pits. Veterans cannot afford to wait any longer while their conditions worsen. We must take action now to formally recognize exposure to burn pits, rather than repeat the mistake of making Vietnam veterans wait decades for recognition of their exposure to Agent Orange."
Burn pit disease research could take many years, and some veterans have already felt the effects of their exposure. The bill would allow the VA to review their claims to certain benefits on a case-by-case basis. But where today veterans are required to show evidence of their exposure to burn pits or have their claim denied, the new bill could remove that burden of proof from the veteran's shoulders.
Instead, if a veteran is found to have deployed to a certain location during certain time periods, he or she will be considered by VA to have been exposed and could be eligible for benefits.
If a veteran submits a claim for disability because of exposure in one of the listed areas and times — encompassing the first Gulf War and those who have served since 9/11 — the VA can provide them a medical exam to further determine if their illness or disability is caused by their exposure.
DAV and Liermann wanted to be clear that the bill does not automatically guarantee a veteran will be granted a service-connected disability rating for their exposure.
"But this could be a clearer path," he said.
In the bill, a burn pit is defined as "an area of land that is used for disposal of solid waste by burning in the outdoor air."
VA officials recently announced plans to study military toxic exposures and their connections to veteran illnesses.
In its annual survey, Wounded Warrior Project showed that more than 70 percent of its members say they have been exposed to hazardous chemicals or substances in what WWP called a "cross-generational problem." Of that more than 70 percent, 9 percent are getting VA treatment for their exposures.
Senators earlier this year asked VA why it is taking so long to provide benefits to veterans exposed to potentially lethal toxins. Time and again, VA officials couldn't fully answer that question.
The VA estimates that as many as 3.5 million troops may have been exposed to airborne toxins since Sept. 11, 2001.
TAPS says toxic exposure-linked illnesses could soon kill more service members and veterans than suicide.
The plight of veterans affected by toxic exposure has even caught the attention of former Daily Show host and comedian Jon Stewart, who has turned from helping 9/11 first responders get benefits to focus now on veterans exposed to burn pits.