New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) promoted new legislation she is co-sponsoring in support of military veterans during a visit to the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York in Buffalo Thursday.
The proposed legislation would help veterans get Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits for illnesses stemming from exposure to burn pits and other toxins while deployed in overseas conflict zones. Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogens from burn pits, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report, and many now suffer from medical conditions like respiratory ailments, lung diseases and rare cancers.
“The VA continues to claim that there’s not enough evidence that these ailments are service-connected, but we do have the evidence,” Gillibrand said. “We know what was burned. We know what was in the soil. We know that the toxic fumes and environmental conditions were so hazardous that the [U.S. Department of Defense] changed the rules for burning and switched to incinerators in many places.”
Current law requires veterans living with an illness or disability to establish a direct service connection in order to qualify for VA benefits. Gillibrand’s proposed bill, which is co-sponsored by Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA), would grant all veterans with proof of overseas deployment presumed exposure to burn pits and other toxins.
“If this legislation is approved, it will make it so much easier and faster for these veterans to file a claim,” said Erie County Director of Veterans Services David Shenk, who is also a veteran and current member of the U.S. Army Reserve. “It makes it easier on the service officer and it makes it easier on the VA. It’s an open-and-shut case. Do you have one of the illnesses that’s listed in the legislation? Do you have proof of boots-on-ground? Therefore, you’re approved. It’s that simple.”
Shenk also said he is one of the millions of veterans exposed to harmful toxins. One of his daily responsibilities during a 2003 deployment to Iraq was to transport his unit’s garbage and refuse to a pit that burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I can’t begin to tell you everything that was in the air from those burn pits—I think only time will tell,” Shenk said. “I myself have not contracted an illness yet, but I think that as life goes on that question mark is going to get bigger and bigger.”
The U.S. military used open-air burn pits to burn garbage, medical waste, plastics, electronics and other refuse during the Gulf War and the Global War on Terror, though it has now mostly transitioned to using incinerators, Gillibrand said. The largest pits were located in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Gillibrand and Shenk compared the current legislative push to similar past efforts for Vietnam War veterans and 9/11 first responders.
“It’s illegal to have a burn pit in the United States. It’s illegal for a reason,” Gillibrand said. “It was wrong of the military to have burn pits in all these places around the world. It was morally wrong, and it’s harmed our troops.”