Bipartisan U.S. Senate bill aiding veterans exposed to burn pits edges toward passage

By: - June 9, 2022 6:00 am

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits on June 7. (Jennifer Shutt | States Newsroom)

Baldwin: ‘A promise we have made and that we need to keep’

For Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the approaching vote on a bill that will enable veterans exposed to toxic chemicals from military burn pits overseas is the culmination of more than two decades of work.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin
Photo by Senate Democrats via Flickr

“I learned about these issues when I first was elected to the Congress,” after the end of the first Gulf War, Baldwin, who went to Washington, D.C., as the 2nd District member of Congress from Madison after the 1998 election, told the Wisconsin Examiner in an interview.

“That generation was beginning to have the ill effects from being stationed in Kuwait and having passed the oil fields, which were often burning,” Baldwin said. “It kind of shocked me that the VA wasn’t recognizing that some of these Gulf War Syndrome issues were as a direct result of these toxic exposures.”

She said an estimated 3.5 million service members have been exposed to toxins of one kind or another while in the military since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“And they have, up to this point, not been able to secure VA health care in many instances because there was a refusal to link the disease or illness with their toxic exposure,” Baldwin said. “That was wrong, and it’s important to see that corrected.”

The legislation also includes provisions to cover veterans who served at the Karshi-Khanabad air base, known as K2, in Uzbekistan in the years after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the conflicts that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq — an issue that Baldwin has focused on.

“We know now that K-2 service members were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxic chemicals and radiological hazards during their deployment,” Baldwin said. While that exposure wasn’t from burn pits, it was similar in its impact on service members.

Meeting veterans who gave her their accounts of exposure and its effects on their health for years afterward brought the issue home.

“It becomes personal when people you know and work with are suffering, after they have sacrificed so much for their country,” she said. “It’s really a promise that we have made and that we need to keep to our veterans who suffered through these exposures.”

The bill creates a list of health conditions that, when it becomes law, will be presumed to be linked to burn pit exposures, Baldwin explained. It took time to do the research to understand the link between exposure and the illnesses associated with it.

“But this is so long overdue. Ever since the first Gulf War, we have had now millions of veterans who have been subjected to these toxic exposures, including in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.

The legislation includes provisions for continued study of the problem as well as for treatment.

“In addition to recognizing the various health conditions as being related to burn pits and toxic exposures, the bill also strengthens research on toxic exposure and addresses the VA’s resources so that claims that are made under this new law will be timely processed, and that’s a big deal,” Baldwin said.

The assurance of coverage isn’t enough, she observed. “If you apply and it takes forever for the determination to be made, that’s a sort of empty promise.” The legislation addresses that, Baldwin said. “As we see it implemented, we’re going to have to see if those resources are enough to speed up that processing of these claims.”

Erik Gunn

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.