WASHINGTON, D.C. (WENY) – The United States Department of Veterans Affairs began processing disability claims related to certain conditions for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military services in Southwest Asia.
According to the VA, benefits to service in Southwest Asia includes Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the airspace above these locations.
“This is life-changing news for countless American veterans who are relying on the VA to provide benefits for illnesses incurred while serving our country,” said Senator Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. “More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits and, starting this week, the VA has taken a critical step toward removing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from three types of respiratory illnesses. While this is a great first step, we still have work to do. Congress must pass the full Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act to cover the true cost of war and to get veterans the full spectrum of care they need.”
During the Global War on Terror and the Gulf War, the military used open-air burn pits to burn garbage, medical waste, plastics and other waste from military installations. According to estimates, at least 230 pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. These methods were used despite the fact that the United States has outlawed using burn pits on American soil due to the cancer-causing toxic fumes.
This marks the first VA decision to add presumptive illnesses related to those burn pits. The move comes after Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined forces with former comedian Jon Stewart and veterans advocates pushed her bill, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act.
The bill would create a presumptive service connection for over 20 categories of diseases, including asthma, and “streamline the process for veterans to obtain benefits from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs”. According to VA records, roughly 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits that emit toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air. According to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, more than 255,000 veterans and service members have already completed and submitted a questionnaire to self-report information about burn pit exposure.
In June, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted to send the Honoring Our PACT Act to the full floor and the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee voted out the COST of War Act in May. Both bills include provisions from Senator Gillibrand’s legislation.
The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would remove the “burden of proof” from veterans to “provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure”. Instead, 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.