Published by Mark Satter
(Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
In a year in which Congress has strained for legislative achievements, a big one is in sight. When senators return from a Memorial Day recess spent honoring those who gave their lives for the United States, they will take up a bipartisan bill that will dramatically broaden America’s commitment to take care of sick veterans.
The bill would offer new health care and tax-free disability benefits as high as $3,332 a month to as many as 3.5 million veterans at a cost the Congressional Budget Office has pegged at more than $300 billion over 10 years.
Under the legislation — crafted by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kan. — the Veterans Affairs Department would consider a veteran with any of 23 conditions, as varied as brain cancer and hypertension, who was deployed to a combat zone during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan automatically eligible for care at government cost.
By contrast, under current law, the veteran must demonstrate that his or her illness was the result of military service in order to qualify for benefits.
Presuming a cause
There’s little doubt that many veterans were sickened by exposure to chemicals while they served, including smoke from burn pits in which troops disposed of garbage, such as medical materials and vehicle parts, by dousing it in jet fuel and setting it ablaze.
The practice was widespread during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and medical experts say exposure is linked to a host of illnesses that can present themselves years later, including cancers, chronic respiratory conditions and lung damage.
But for the better part of the post-9/11 era, the military did not keep thorough records of where burn pits were used. The smoke from the pits can also travel for miles, potentially affecting troops far afield. For veterans trying to prove that they qualified for toxic exposure treatment through the VA, it could be their word against the Pentagon’s.
“I was in a very small, remote patrol base in southern Afghanistan, and we had a burn pit like everybody did. When I got out in 2011, there was nothing in my medical record that proved I was near a burn pit, because the DOD wasn’t tracking this stuff,” said Marine Corps veteran Travis Horr, the government affairs director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group....
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