Help veterans by passing legislation on burn pits

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., shown here at the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade Casing Ceremony in 2019, has been advocating for reforms to the way the Department of Veterans Affairs handles claims from people exposed to toxic burn pits in the line of service. Watertown Daily Times

WASHINGTON — For the last 20 years, we sent brave service members on tours of duty and exposed them to dangerous conditions on the battlefield — and off.

We asked them to live on bases and in places around the world where burn pits were used to destroy everything from plastics and electronics to human waste, creating toxic, poisonous air that they breathed in every day.

I’ve heard veterans describe burn pits that sent black smoke and soot into the air like snow that clung to service members’ skin, clothes, tents and lungs.

I’ve heard them talk about the friends they served with who are now sick, dying or lost to ALS, heart disease and glioblastoma.

And I’ve heard from widows who watched their spouses battle against rare cancers.

We owe it to our service members and their families who sacrificed and risked so much for our country to get them the care they need.

To deny them is a dereliction of duty.

But when these veterans and service members go to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to ask for care, they are denied eight times out of 10, often over lack of evidence that their disease is service related.

When someone goes to war physically fit and healthy, gets exposed to toxic chemicals, and is now suffering with respiratory health problems or cancer, the connection is clear.

Our service members should not have to spend years jumping through hoops, doing research and paying for doctors and biopsies to prove to the VA that their illness is service related.

And no one who is grieving a spouse lost to these diseases should have to fight the VA to get the benefits their family is owed.

But they are.

Time and time again.

We have to change that.

The longer we wait for more studies to prove the causation that is self-evident, the more veterans who will suffer and die.

The way we change this, and live up to our responsibility to our service members and veterans, is by providing presumptive coverage — that means creating a system that says if you were there and you are sick, you are covered.

My bill, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, will do that.

It would grant coverage to all the veterans who have deployed to fight in war and have now developed cancer or respiratory ailments — no more barriers, no more needless hurdles to clear.

The VA estimates that 3.5 million people were exposed to burn pits, and more than 270,000 veterans and service members have already added themselves to the Burn Pit Registry.

This is a health crisis in the making.

It has already started and it’s only going to get bigger.

It took years of fighting to provide health care coverage to the Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

And it took years of fighting to get coverage for our 9/11 first-responders who were exposed to the same toxins at Ground Zero that our service members were exposed to from burn pits.

None of those heroes had years to wait.

Neither do these veterans.

This is not the time for half measures.

We need to act now to get help to those who are already sick and to build a program that will ensure that those who get sick in the future don’t have to continue doing battle with the VA to get the health care they need and have more than earned.

This is the time for true presumptive coverage.

I am glad to see my bill was included in House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano’s Honoring Our PACT Act, and I will keep working to get our veterans the presumptive coverage they deserve.

We have to reckon with the full cost of the last 20 years of war.

That includes caring for these veterans.

If we can spend trillions of dollars waging war, then we can certainly afford to take care of those who risked everything to fight in it.

It is truly the least we can do.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., serves on the following committees: Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; Intelligence; and Special Committee on Aging. She lives in Albany with her husband, Jonathan Gillibrand, and their two sons, Theo and Henry.

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