Congress needs to find "the will to solve the problem" of veterans benefits for those who were sickened from toxic fire pit exposure while serving in combat zones, a trio of veterans and advocates write in a Memorial Day weekend appeal on NBC News.
"The VA, however, hasn't acknowledged a definite connection between the burn pits and their ailments, limiting service members' ability to get adequate treatment," former Central Commander Gen. David Petraeus, former Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) CEO Jeremy Butler wrote in the call to action. "This has been a long-smoldering issue for the veteran community, as until now Congress has lacked the will to solve the problem."
Burn pits are used to destroy used equipment and munitions as forces leave a combat area. The practice of using jet fuel to destroy the waste has led to service members coming down with ailments, but they have struggled to receive disability benefits and healthcare.
"The impact from these toxic exposures is immense and widespread," the wrote. "Service members have returned from the wars with a variety of respiratory illnesses, cancers and other diseases; some have been diagnosed years later; and others still have not yet learned of the health impacts from their deployments. Many have even died."
A survey of the IAVA members found 86% said they were exposed to the toxicity of the burn pits, and 88% of those believe they are already experiencing symptoms.
"Thirty years after Operation Desert Storm and nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Congress may be on the verge of delivering Veterans Affairs disability and health care benefits to thousands of veterans who were sickened by exposure to burn pit toxins while serving in combat zones," they began. "As we approach Memorial Day, it's time for the federal government to acknowledge and help treat those who suffered from this exposure while serving their country."
Congress has considered 15 separate bills on the issue, from calls to further study to mandates for disability benefits and healthcare for the estimated 3.5 million veterans exposed, they wrote.
Among them is one by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who spoke to Newsmax's "Greg Kelly Reports" about its importance in April.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or Honoring Our PACT Act, which establishes 23 cancers and respiratory illnesses that would qualify veterans for VA disability and health care benefits.
A similar bill was released by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., the Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops (COST) of War Act, last week.
"Most important is that the landmark legislation by Tester and Takano finally delivers a presumptive service connection for VA health care and benefits to those service members sickened by toxic exposures," they wrote. "This means it will be presumed that illnesses listed in the legislation will have arisen as a result of a service member's deployment, removing a massive hurdle faced by veterans to provide proof to the VA that they qualify for treatment."
There is no better time than Memorial Day to heed the call to acknowledge the burn pit illnesses, they conclude.
"As we call on our friends, family and fellow citizens each Sept. 11 to #NeverForget, there is no better way for Congress and the White House to do that than by ensuring proper care for those who experienced what are quickly being recognized as among the signature injuries sustained by those who answered the call," they wrote.
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