Senate approves bill to assist vets exposed to burn pits

Health

(NewsNation) — The Senate on Thursday approved a sweeping expansion of health care and disability benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in response to concerns about their exposure to toxic burn pits.

The bill passed by a vote of 84-14 and sets a course that could help millions who served after Sept. 11, 2001. It also caps years of advocacy work by veterans groups and others who liken burn pits to the Agent Orange herbicide that Vietnam-era veterans were exposed to in Southeast Asia.

Burn pits are massive holes the U.S. military dug during wars that were used to burn everything from equipment to human waste. The military routinely set ablaze pits with jet fuel to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans breathing in that air and getting sick were required to achieve the nearly impossibly feat of proving the burn pits were the cause of their illness.

Last month, however, leaders on both sides of the aisle reached an agreement to provide health disability benefits to service members exposed to toxic chemicals and burn pits while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and as far back as Vietnam and the Cold War. It would consider 23 illnesses presumptive, meaning the burden of proof will no longer be on these veterans or soldiers.

Family members of soldiers who died from inhaling the toxic fumes said the passage of this bill “means the world,” but their work is not done yet.

“It’s been a long time coming and a lot of frustration and anger over the last five years, but knowing that this bill is one more step away from being signed by President Biden, it means the world to me and thousands of other veterans and surviving loved ones across the country,” said Susan Zeier, whose son-in-law Heath Robinson carries the bill’s namesake.

Zeier said the bill is a “great start” to aiding soldiers like Robinson, who died in 2020 from inhaling smoke at the burn pits, but more illnesses need to be added to future legislation.

Robinson had long cancer and an autoimmune disease when he died.

“We have more work to do but this is like a battering ram,” Zeier said. “We broke down the door and we got in and put the fire out and now we’re gonna have to keep going and take care of the rest of the burning room.”

The bill would also extend coverage to last 10 years after discharge instead of the current five years.

It would also benefit Vietnam War-era veterans by including high blood pressure in the list of conditions presumed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange and extending Agent Orange presumptions to veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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