Kirsten Gillibrand’s Landmark Legislation Would Designate 12 Illnesses as Connected to Burn Pits
Last week, lawmakers in the House introduced legislation to streamline the current process for veterans to receive benefits related to exposure to burn pits during service. The current process requires veterans to prove a link between their given illness and burn pit exposure. The new legislation seeks to remove this provision and outlines a new process: service members would only have to provide proof that they served at least 15 days in one of 33 countries listed in the legislation.
Gillibrand expressed her frustrations with the current laws during a press conference last week, stating that “This is a moral outrage. It’s also a looming crisis that must be addressed. Burn pits are so dangerous that they are outlawed on U.S. soil, but they were used all over the world. Many of our veterans have no time to spare.”
Three million veterans stand to be impacted by the new legislation, if it was established as a law. This group is made up of those who have service in one of the countries listed since August 2nd, 1990. The illnesses in the bill include asthma diagnosed after deployment to a listed country or territory; any type of cancer; chronic bronchitis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; constrictive bronchiolitis; emphysema; granulomatous disease; interstitial lung disease; lymphoma; pleuritis; pulmonary fibrosis; and sarcoidosis.
Danielle Robinson was among the group that spoke at the press conference. She is the wife of Army Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who served in Iraq in 2006. Working at Camp Liberty, he was exposed regularly to a large burn pit at the site. Robinson developed a rare lung cancer that was directly linked to toxic exposure by his doctor. Robinson died this past May. “My husband is dead because America has poisoned its soldiers,” Robinson said during the conference.
There have been concerns over the impact of toxic exposure since 2006 when a bioenvironmental flight commander noted that the large burn pit at Base Balad in Iraq posed chronic health hazards. Despite the concern being around for fourteen years, there is still not adequate coverage for those impacted and a system that makes it harder for those impacted to get coverage is still in place.
Pushback from the VA over the years has been consistent. They have cited a 2011 report by the National Academy of Sciences that deemed evidence linking exposure and long-term illnesses insufficient.
Jon Stewart, a long-time supporter of veterans’ benefits coverage related to burn pit exposure, expressed his doubts about these arguments. “The only difference between the first responders at Ground Zero who are dying of toxic exposures is that was caused as a result of a terrorist attack. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from the same illnesses and same exposures as the result of the actions of our own government,” Stewart said.
Unfortunately, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act has little chance of passing in the last 24 days of the legislative year. Nevertheless, Stewart and many other supports say they will continue fighting.