Congress leaves veterans out in the cold on burn pits

Matt Saintsing
November 02, 2018 - 1:23 pm

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz / Released

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Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, for years, tried not to let their health issues linked to burn pit exposure fall by the wayside. 

But now, advocates are saying it’ll have to wait until next year. 

Tom Porter, the legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), says the Burn Pits Accountability Act, would have been a prime candidate to include in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual Pentagon authorization bill. 

“It would have had a better chance to be included at the last minute like we were aiming to, but the bill had not had a hearing yet, it was just introduced,” Porter tells Connecting Vets. 

The legislation would require more thorough research into the adverse health impacts of exposure among veterans and service members, and to generate more data on how best to treat illnesses associated such exposure. 

He says IAVA is aiming to have a “strong reintroduction” after the New Year hoping to grab a lot more attention to the issue. 

“(The bill) has generally gotten good comments that it is a useful piece of legislation, and I’m confident that we’re going to get it done next year,” says Porter. 

In the meantime, IAVA and other advocates are meeting with Senate offices to drum up more support. The measure has widespread backing in the House with 143 bipartisan co-sponsors, and 10 in the Senate.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged in recent years, open-air burn pits exposed noxious clouds of billowing smoke. To date, about 157,000 veterans and service members are on VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, but the number of those exposed could be in the millions.

Part of the why there are so few names on the registry is because the burden is on vets and service members to self-register and Porter says most of the time they don’t know it exists. "I ask service members, active and reserve, if they know about it and the answer is almost always no," he adds.  

In the meantime, veterans and service members continue to report adverse medical effects due to their exposure. Comparisons have been made linking burn pits exposure as the “Agent Orange” of the current generation of veterans

The purpose of the registry is to create a batch of data on all exposures among veterans and service members to research and develop clinical treatments to help treat anything from respiratory and lung issues to cancers that emerge from this type of exposure. 

And while the VA is part of the solution, the Defense Department has to get involved.

Pentagon officials were invited to two separate events on the Hill, a House hearing and legislative roundtable, but did not show

“We’re hoping there can be a joint Armed Services-Veterans Affairs hearing either on the House or the Senate side so DOD can be compelled to testify,” says Porter.

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