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Among the great injustices of recent American history is the government’s continued failure to provide care and benefits to military veterans suffering from toxic burn pit exposure. Finally, after years of inaction, that injustice is potentially coming to an end.
When America’s military service members willingly risk their lives for their country overseas, they do so with the understanding that they will be cared for when they come home. However, that does not always happen as it should.
While serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, millions of U.S. troops lived and worked in the vicinity of toxic burn pits. These pits, which the military has used for decades to dispose of everything from human waste and trash to electronics and jet fuel, spewed forth a dangerous mix of airborne particles that pose a serious health risk.
Since their exposure, many of the more than 300,000 service members who have added their names to the Burn Pits Registry have developed permanent injuries and illnesses, ranging from chronic bronchitis to brain cancer — and that is not counting those who remain unregistered. There is little doubt these conditions are the result of inhaled toxins.
The government authorized the use of burn pits, so it is the government’s responsibility to care for the victims of toxic exposure. But instead of helping our veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has spent years denying them the care and benefits they need and deserve.
In the late 2000s, when medical researchers discovered the link between burn pits and adverse health conditions, the VA tried to cover it up. When the connection was no longer deniable, the VA demanded veterans in search of care prove their conditions were caused by burn pit exposure.
That demand is unreasonable, since proving direct causation in cases like these is virtually impossible. The real reason for all the red tape is that the federal government did not want to bear the cost of its mistakes.
Heath Robinson (left) developed a rare form of cancer after he was exposed to burn pits during a 13-month tour of duty in Iraq. (Susan Zeier)
We refuse to stand by and let the VA neglect veterans in need. So last year, we introduced a bipartisan bill to fix the problem. Our Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would force the VA to presume that soldiers who were exposed to burn pits in the line of duty and are now suffering from associated injuries and illnesses merit government care and benefits.
That bill helped start a movement, in Washington and across the country, to get justice for burn-pit victims. Finally, it looks like our mission may be nearing completion. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that contains the presumption enforcement from our 2021 bill. And now, the Senate is poised to do the same by passing the bipartisan Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act.
When that bill becomes law, phased-in reforms will allow veterans to finally get treatment and benefits for 23 toxic exposure-related conditions. VA claim processing will also be streamlined, and more research on the health effects of toxic exposure will take place.
This victory cannot make up for the years veterans spent suffering without care. However, it is a victory nonetheless and one that Americans should be proud of. For a long time, we have failed to do right by those who have made great sacrifices on our behalf. No more — justice for America’s military men and women begins now. We call on our colleagues in Congress to pass this legislation without delay.
Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has represented New York in the U.S. Senate since 2009 and earlier served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives.