Demanding Answers and Recognition of Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits
Over 140,000 servicemembers and veterans have reported exposure to burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals over the past three decades. However, based on deployment numbers, the actual exposure rate is likely over a million. Exposure can produce serious and potentially life-threatening health effects, including neurological disorders, rare forms of cancer, lung diseases, and more—triggering some to call the crisis the ‘Agent Orange’ of the post-9/11 generation.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Post 9/11 Veterans Caucus and member of the Congressional Burn Pits Caucus, said: “A few months ago, I got a call from a Vietnam veteran in my district in Hilo, Hawai‘i, who was taking the last breaths of his life. In those final breaths, he wanted to share the struggles that he and so many Vietnam veterans continue to suffer from because of Agent Orange, and their battles with the VA because of the lack of recognition of how Agent Orange impacted, sickened, and took the lives of Vietnam veterans. The last thing this veteran said to me is ‘You can’t help me, but promise me that you will help my fellow veterans from suffering this same consequence.’ That’s why we’re gathered here today.
“Burn pits are the Agent Orange of the post-9/11 generation of veterans. Just over 140,000 veterans have registered in the Burn Pit Registry, but there are far more who are eligible and should be recognized for their exposure. For those of us who deployed to Iraq, others who have deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and other places within the Middle East, burn pits are a part of everyday life. They were not placed in locations far off from where troops were living, breathing, and eating every single day. Service men and women who I served with manned guard towers that were right next to these burn pits. People got sick with the ‘crud,’ that undiagnosable thing that made you hack every single day.
“We’re hearing the effects of this exposure now in the stories today and from our constituents and fellow veterans across the country. A 21-year Army retired veteran in my district from Wai?anae named Chris has received emergency surgery to remove his appendix, a cancerous tumor, and eight inches of his colon since he returned home from multiple deployments in the Middle East. Doctors told him that his cancer was incredibly rare for his age and his fitness level, yet the VA denied his claim to cover him despite the fact that his surgery and illness caused him to be out of work for months. This is one of many stories that we hear of veterans continuing to suffer because of the lack of recognition between their exposure and their illnesses now.
“Congress must take action in the absence of leadership from the VA, and pass the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which I introduced with fellow veteran Congressman Brian Mast, and pass the Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act, introduced by my colleagues Congressmen Ruiz and Castro, to begin to take action and right this wrong. These bills take the first steps to ensure that our country fulfills its debt and promise to our veterans who put their lives on the line in service to this country. I urge our colleagues to support these bills and make it a priority to pass them in Congress.”
Background: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Brian Mast introduced the Burn Pits Accountability Act (H.R. 5671) to evaluate the exposure of U.S. servicemembers and veterans to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals by:
- Requiring the Secretary of Defense to record whether servicemembers have been based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used or exposed to toxic airborne chemicals, including any information recorded as part of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, in the Periodic Health Assessment (PHAs), Separation History and Physical Examination (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHAs).
- Enrolling any servicemember who meets the above criteria in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, unless he or she opts-out.
- Requiring the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to share information relating to exposure of burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals recorded in PHAs, SHPEs, and PDHAs.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also joined Reps. Raul Ruiz, M.D. (CA-36) and Joaquin Castro (TX-20) in introducing the Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act to allow family members to register in the burn pits registry on behalf of a deceased servicemember.