Senate leaders on Tuesday promised a vote later this year on sweeping military toxic exposure legislation that would dramatically expand benefits for veterans who served near burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite continued Republican concerns about the costly plan.
“It’s our job to make sure we take care of veterans once they come back, and we’re not going to rest until we deal with burn pits and all of the other illnesses that people acquired when they fought for us,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
“Today, we’re here to say enough is enough.”
Schumer’s comments — which included a full endorsement of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act passed by the House earlier this month — came during the latest Capitol Hill rally from veterans advocates demanding action on the issue of improved care and support for victims of burn pits, massive fires used by the military overseas to dispose of a host of waste materials.
Advocates say toxic smoke from those fires spread throughout military bases, leading to respiratory illnesses and rare cancers among the troops who served there.
But because the Defense Department did not monitor air quality or specific exposure to toxic substances, scientifically linking the fires to the veterans’ illnesses later in life has been difficult.
Family and friends of those veterans — some present, some deceased — spoke about their frustration that their loved ones’ injuries still remain unrecognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the public at large.
“I need all of these senators to understand what it is like to lay on the floor [beside] your dying husband for seven hours watching him die,” said Danielle Robinson, widow of Army veteran Heath Robinson, who died in 2020 from lung cancer believed caused by toxic burn pit smoke in Iraq years earlier.
“If you pass this bill, you are going to help so many veterans who are in the same situation right now.”
The PACT Act covers a host of military toxic exposure injuries from multiple generations of combat, including adding hypertension to the list of illnesses presumed caused by Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War and includes presumptive status for radiation poisoning for thousands of veterans who served in areas near nuclear testing sites.
But the burn pit provisions have drawn the most attention in recent months.
The legislation would codify that all troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan likely suffered some level of poisoning from burn pits used extensively throughout those countries, even though scientific specifics on the chemical vapors present remain incomplete. That would give them quicker access to medical care and disability benefits, skipping bureaucratic paperwork.
Altogether, more than 3.5 million veterans — about one in every five veterans in America today — could see some benefit change under the scope of the bill. The House approved it 256-174, with support from all of the chamber’s Democrats and about three dozen Republicans.
GOP lawmakers have raised concerns about the cost (about $207 billion over the next decade) and the potential burden it could place on VA’s benefits system. About 240,000 claims are currently backlogged (waiting for final approval for more than four months), a number that has more than tripled in the last few years.
During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing a few hours after the Tuesday rally, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. and the panel’s ranking member, said he is committed to “creating a law that will withstand the test of time while mitigating disruptions in VA’s work to care for our veterans.”
But so far, support for the PACT Act in the Senate among Republicans is limited. Committee chairman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., expressed frustration that cost concerns appear to be slowing down progress on a final compromise bill.
“Right now, our veterans are the ones that are paying that cost,” Tester said. “I don’t believe they can wait any longer.”
The White House and Department of Veterans Affairs have signaled support for the measure. At the hearing, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said he has changes he thinks will allow his department to move faster to help veterans, but sees the measure as the right step forward on the issue.
“We need to ensure that the presumptive process created by this bill allows VA and future secretaries to act with transparency, efficiency and public participation for the benefit of veterans, not create additional administrative burdens that slow things down,” he said.
He said he expects to have additional information on how the PACT Act will impact VA operations later this spring. Schumer said he wants to bring the measure to the Senate floor as quickly as possible, but did not commit to a specific deadline.
Advocates said a vote can’t come soon enough.
“We can’t wait any longer,” said comedian Jon Stewart, who has been an outspoken advocate on the burn pit issue in recent years. “This delay is unconscionable …
“You cannot be America first when you put veterans last.”
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.