Veterans advocates saw significant progress in 2021 in the fight to improve care and benefits for victims of burn pit smoke, but they’re hoping for even more in 2022.

The issue of toxic exposure injuries for veterans has been a point of emphasis for outside organizations for years. This past year, advocates for those ill veterans saw a number of bills to extend research, monitoring and benefits eligibility advance further than ever before in Congress, only to stall out at the end of the year.

Leaders in the House and Senate have promised to keep pushing those measures along. But partially in response to that momentum, the Department of Veterans Affairs has begun its own work on the issue, granting presumptive benefits to some burn pit victims for the first time.

In August, VA officials announced that veterans suffering asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis who served in most overseas war zones after September 2001 would be presumed to have contracted the condition from the toxic smoke emanating from such pits.

That designation reduces the paperwork and proof needed to link the conditions to individuals’ time in service and speeds up the process of getting them disability payouts.

Several thousand veterans have already been approved for the new benefits.

Then in November, White House officials announced a full review of how all future disability claims will be evaluated, including a 90-day review of numerous rare cancers believed linked to military burn pits. The results of that work should be made public in February.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told Military Times in November that “no veteran is going to have to wait another five or six years” for answers on the burn pit benefits.

“We are moving because of pressure from — and expectations from — our veterans and because of a demand for accountability from the president,” he said.

Veterans Affairs officials have estimated more than 3.5 million troops were exposed to the toxic smoke from burn pits during overseas deployments over the past 20 years, but a full accounting of the injuries and illnesses that smoke caused has never been completed.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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