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Rubio, Gillibrand Introduce Landmark Burn Pits Legislation to Help Veterans

Mar 26, 2021 | Press Releases

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the bipartisan and bicameral Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. U.S. Representatives Raul Ruiz, M.D (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) will introduce the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill would provide presumptive U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to servicemembers who have deployed and have illnesses due to exposure to burn pits and other toxins. Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits that spewed toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
Rubio, Gillibrand, and Ruiz also announced an April 13, 2021 press conference outside of the U.S. Capitol that will feature veterans who have suffered from toxic exposure, survivors of veterans who have passed due to toxic exposure, veterans advocate Jon Stewart, 9/11 activist John Feal, Burn Pits 360, the IAVA, American Legion, and several other veterans groups.
“Our war fighters had a job to do, and they did it honorably and without hesitation,” Rubio said. “We will never be able to repay them and their families for their sacrifice, but we can — and we must — take care of them now. This historic and long overdue legislation will cut through the red tape to ensure veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins while defending our nation will receive the care they need and deserve. No more excuses. No more delays. It is time to act.”
“More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits, yet the VA continues to deny them care by placing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses,” Gillibrand said. “Congress cannot sit by as the VA ignores its duty. The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care—period. The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will finally establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining vital VA benefits. I am proud to cosponsor this bipartisan legislation with Senator Rubio, and I thank Congressman Ruiz for his leadership in the House. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support this bill and to apply common sense and common decency to a broken process.”
“Our veterans cannot wait. Service members are returning home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war, dying years later from lung diseases, cancers, and autoimmune diseases caused by their exposure to toxic military burn pits,” Ruiz said.  “The VA and DoD cannot continue to neglect this self-inflicted wound on our veterans. That’s why I co-authored the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act with Senator Gillibrand to get our veterans the care they need right now.”
“Our veterans are heroes and deserve to be treated as such, yet the VA and DoD continue to deny their earned care,” Fitzpatrick said. “Our bipartisan Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining vital VA benefits. I am proud to join Rep. Ruiz and Senator Gillibrand and a broad national coalition of VSOs to ensure our veterans receive the care they deserve. No veteran should die waiting for care.”
“This legislation includes presumption and actually fixes this urgent and immoral issue. Anything else just delays and denies the treatment and benefits our warriors need,” said veterans advocate Jon Stewart.
“If we can spend money on training ordinary men & woman to go into combat and do extraordinary things keeping us safe 24/7, then we should be able to spend money when these Heroes come home missing body parts, have a mental illness or are poisoned by the toxic aftermath from Burn Pits. We are fighting two fronts. Passing vital legislation, and changing the culture on how these men & woman are taken care of after they come home,” said 9/11 Responder & Advocate John Feal.
“Our families are calling on Congress to pass the Warfighter Presumption Bill. Your constituents, veterans and their families should not have to return from war to face the injustice of the denial of compensation and health care benefits–we will not settle for less than presumption. Together with veteran owned businesses, veteran organizations, Veteran Public Figures, police and firefighter unions and the rest of America we will mobilize a national movement to pass this legislation. We are not fulfilling our moral obligation to protect and serve these service men and women that bore the burden of America’s defense. We must take action to chip away at the complex web of barriers, erected by entrenched political and bureaucratic interests, which deprive a class of injured veterans of healthcare and benefits. It’s time we recognize these injuries as a true cost of war,” said Rosie Torres, Executive Director of Burn Pits 360
“This legislation regarding Burn Pit exposure is required to fulfill our sacred obligation to the men and women who faithfully served,” said David Shulkin M.D., ninth secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
“For IAVA members, the data is clear: 86% of members have been exposed to burn pits or other toxic exposures, and 88% either have or may already have symptoms from that exposure. It is past time that veterans exposed to these deadly toxins receive the benefits that they deserve. We thank Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Raul Ruiz for their important leadership to ensure that veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic exposures will be able to get a presumption of illness for that exposure,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). 
“We look forward to Congress reintroducing and passing the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. Congress must act now to ensure that veterans exposed to toxic exposures receive the care that they need and rightfully deserve. We thank Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Marco Rubio, Representative Raul Ruiz for their leadership on this issue and look forward to working with them to get this critical legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President,” said National Commander James W. Bill Oxford, American Legion. 
“As Vietnam veterans, we know firsthand the toll of toxic exposure on our health and the high costs associated with our toxic wounds. Times is of the essence, and we call for swift passage of this crucial legislation with the hopes that our younger veterans will not face the decades-long fight for healthcare and benefits that continues to plague Vietnam veterans,” said VVA National President John Rowan.
“To do justice to Vietnam and 1991 Gulf War veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and Gulf War Illness, Congress had to legislate presumptions. It is past time to create a similar presumption for the sick veterans of our Nation’s more recent wars and military operations in countries having toxic environments created by burn pits or other conditions — natural or man-made,” said Peter Sullivan of SGT Sullivan Circle. 
“Many of our veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries are suffering from the toxic exposures from burn pits. It took the Vietnam Veterans years to fight for their benefits from exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides. In fact, we are still fighting for those who served in Guam, Panama, Thailand, and Okinawa.  Vietnam veterans pushed not only for these benefits from their personal exposures to toxins, but for those suffering from PTSD as well. Let us not forget these young warriors, who are also suffering from the toxins released from the Burn Pits and in some cases radiation poisoning. No one wants to see these men and women wait decades for their earned and deserved benefits. Action is needed ASAP. Members from our organization, Military Veterans Advocacy will leave no service member or veteran behind. When these brave heroes raised their hands in an oath to defend this nation at all costs including their lives, our country promised to care for then when they returned. This country needs to be made accountable in keeping that promise. This is part of the pricetag of war,” said Susie Belanger, Legislative Director, Military Veterans Advocacy, Inc.
“We applaud Sen. Gillibrand, Sen. Rubio, Rep. Ruiz, and Rep. Fitzpatrick for their commitment to servicemembers and veterans who have been dying and suffering from the devastating illnesses as a result of their exposure to toxic emissions from burn pits. This legislation does for victims of toxic exposures and burn pits what the Agent Orange Act did for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. This presumption of exposure and service connection is long overdue for veterans who were exposed to toxic emissions,” said National Veterans Legal Services Program Executive Director Bart Stichman.
“Too often, veterans have been alone in dealing with the consequences of service to their country. This is now an opportunity to stand with them, to honor their commitment, and together confront the challenges they are facing from exposure to burn pits and other toxins during their military service,” said COL Sam Whitehurst, Vice President, Programs & Services, Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services.
“For many veterans with toxic exposures, there has been — for them — a clear timeline connecting their toxic exposures during their military deployments to the debilitating health outcomes that followed them home. Far too many veterans who were exposed to open burn pits and a veritable toxic soup have developed terrible respiratory conditions, Parkinson’s and other diseases, and cancers, including the brain cancer that has taken so many of their lives.  This critically important legislation will provide the missing link to help these veterans.  Indeed, this is the only current, major toxic exposure legislation to actually name presumptive conditions for VA disability claims rather than lay out a bureaucratic process that relies on trusting VA to do the right thing — the same VA that currently denies Gulf War and Burn Pits-related claims at 80 percent denial rates.  In this year of the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm), we are deeply grateful to Senator Gillibrand and the many powerful cosponsors for ensuring this legislation will help so many veterans who served, including Gulf War, other pre-9/11, and post-9/11 veterans alike,” said Anthony Hardie, National Chair & Director Veterans for Common Sense.
“At VoteVets, we believe caring for our men and women in uniform — both during and after their service — is a national security priority, and it is essential to keep our sacred promise to those who’ve fought for our freedoms. Veterans and military families are suffering severe health consequences as a direct result of toxic exposure to burn pits. We’re grateful to Senator Gillibrand and her colleagues for their leadership on this critical issue. Our heroes deserve the comprehensive solution this bill will provide,” said Mary Kaszynski, Director of Government Relations for VoteVets.
“The Stronghold Freedom Foundation is grateful for Senator Gillibrand’s proposed Presumptive Benefits for War Fighter Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act. Upon passage, this legislation will provide some respite for Karshi-Khanabad Airbase (K2) veterans denied the care and benefits earned through their service and will greatly benefit many more. The Stronghold Freedom Foundation will continue to advocate for full recognition by the government and agencies which placed K2 veterans in harm’s way and will continue working with legislators, the DoD, and VA to obtain complete recognition, preventative care, screening, and registry for all K2 veterans,” said The Stronghold Freedom Foundation.
During military operations in the Global War on Terror and the Gulf War, the military employed open-air burn pits in order to burn garbage, medical waste, plastics, and other waste from military installations. According to estimates, at least 230 pits were utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others were used across the world. The largest of these burn pits were located at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and during its operation, was comprised of 10-acres of burning trash, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.
It has long been established that burning waste and garbage has significant negative impacts on the environment and human health–which is why using burn pits on American soil is against the law and exposure to other toxic substances is highly regulated. However, the military exposed millions of our men and women in uniform to carcinogenic toxic fumes released by burn pits that were used throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million military personnel could have been exposed to burn pits and the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry website shows that nearly 235,00 veterans and service members have completed and submitted a questionnaire to self-report medical information about burn pit exposure. 
Furthermore, the exposure of our service members to dangerous chemicals and environments has not been limited to burn pits. Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. military established Camp Stronghold at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, a former Soviet base in Uzbekistan that had held chemical weapons enriched with Uranium. Thousands of veterans were exposed to these dangerous toxins at this base, and many now suffer from rare cancers and other ailments. 
Veterans are now sick and dying from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses after living among this toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris while serving our country overseas. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny many veterans access to the VA with the excuse that there isn’t enough science to prove their ailments are service-connected.  
Under current law, a veteran who has an illness or disability must establish a direct service connection in order to be eligible for VA benefits. Direct service connections means that evidence establishes that a particular injury or disease resulting in a disability was incurred while in service in the Armed Forces. For veterans exposed to burn pits, this means they would need to provide medical evidence of a current disease or disability, provide personal or other evidence of in-service physical presence near a specific burn pit or exposure to specific toxins or substance and provide evidence of a link between the disability or illness and exposure. Upon completion of these steps, the VA determines if there is enough evidence to provide a medical exam and continue with the disability compensation claim. Therefore, it is currently the veteran’s responsibility to provide their illness or disability is directly connected to burn pit exposure. 
The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would remove the “burden of proof” from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure. Rather, the veteran would only need to submit documentation that they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and they suffer from a qualifying health condition. Campaign medals are awarded to members of the armed forces who deploy for military operations in a designated combat zone or geographical theater.
Presumptive conditions include a wide range of cancers and respiratory illnesses, including: asthma, that was diagnosed after service, head cancer of any type, neck cancer of any type, respiratory cancer of any type, gastrointestinal cancer of any type, reproductive cancer of any type, lymphoma cancer of any type, lymphomatic cancer of any type, kidney cancer, brain cancer, melanoma, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, pleuritis, pulmonary fibrosis, sarcoidosis.
The following organizations support the bill: Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The American Legion, Burn Pits 360, Vote Vets, Military Veterans Advocacy, Stronghold Freedom Foundation, Dixon Center, Veterans for Common Sense, Sergeant Sullivan Circle, National Veterans Legal Services Program, Warriors Project, Grunt Style, Feal Good Foundation.