U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., joined by U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced a bill Tuesday that would provide compensation and care for veterans suffering from illnesses linked to toxic burn pits in combat zones.
The senator announced the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act at a news conference outside Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday morning.
Gillibrand was joined by Ruiz, as well as David Shulkin, former veterans affairs secretary, and comedian and activist Jon Stewart.
The senator explained that over the last 20 years, nearly 3.5 million service members stationed all over the world have been exposed to dangerous chemicals resulting from the military’s waste disposal practices.
On many bases in foreign countries, waste and refuse ranging from medical waste to computer parts and food scraps were piled into a pit in the ground, doused in jet fuel and set alight.
“Burn pits, which are so dangerous they were outlawed on American soil, were used on bases around the world,” Gillibrand said. “Veterans lived and breathed in a toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris, and many are sick and dying from lung disease, cancer and respiratory illnesses.”
Gillibrand compared the burn pits to Agent Orange, the now infamous herbicide used by American forces in Vietnam, which caused severe illness in thousands of Vietnam war veterans.
“This is the same battle that Vietnam veterans had to fight, for coverage because of Agent Orange,” Gillibrand said.
During a press conference held via video call Tuesday afternoon, Gillibrand said burn pits were not the only instance in recent history where American military members were exposed to dangerous chemicals.
“Thousands of service members were stationed at the K2 (Karshi-Khanabad) Air Base that once held Soviet chemical weapons,” she said. “Many now suffer from rare cancers and other ailments.”
K2 Air Base is a former Soviet air base in southeastern Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation.
A veteran who served at the air base detailed to Gillibrand how there were chemicals bubbling up through the ground that would change colors, ranging from orange to black to green. That service member now suffers from hip and joint problems that make it difficult to walk.
When service members seek care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to treat the illnesses caused by these chemicals and burn pits, they’re turned away and told there’s no proof their illnesses were caused by their service.
“When these veterans go to the VA for care, the VA says they have to show medical evidence of a disease or disability, evidence of their physical presence at a specific exposure site and evidence of the link between the illness and exposure,” she said. “Once those veterans have jumped through all of those hoops, the VA says, ‘Nope, the science isn’t there,’ and denies their claims.”
Gillibrand said the legislation she is introducing would streamline the process for veterans to obtain VA benefits to treat their illnesses and would require the VA to provide care without forcing veterans to prove their illness was a direct result of their service overseas. All a veteran would need to prove is that they need care and they were stationed at the K2 Air Base, or at another base that used burn pits.
The illnesses covered by the bill include cancer of any kind, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, lymphoma, pleuritis, pulmonary fibrosis and sacroidosis.
Service members will be considered eligible for benefits if they were part of the Global War on Terror, the Gulf War, or were on active duty on or after Aug. 2, 1990, and spent at least 15 days, cumulatively, in at least one of more than 30 different countries, all in Africa or the Middle East.
Gillibrand said while the costs of offering treatment may be high, the U.S. defense budget has more than enough room to offer care for all veterans affected.
“This should be included in the costs of war,” she said.