US Senate leader vows to bring ‘burn pit’ legislation to a vote

Backed by US veteran groups, bill would provide health benefits for US troops exposed to toxins in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans' Advocate Jon Stewart speaks at a press conference on the need to pass the Honoring Our PACT Act legislation to extend VA benefits to service members who have illnesses due to exposure to burn pits.
Veterans advocate and comedian Jon Stewart speaks at a news conference on the need to pass legislation to extend benefits to US servicemembers who have illnesses due to exposure to 'burn pits' [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged to bring to a vote long-awaited legislation that would provide health benefits for US troops suffering from potential exposure to toxins from “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Standing outside the United States Capitol with comedian Jon Stewart and half a dozen family members of victims of such toxic exposure, Schumer promised that the US government would care for sick veterans.

“Until now, we have refused to face up to one of the biggest costs of those wars, and that is the healthcare needs of veterans who fought and sacrificed on our behalf,” Schumer told reporters.

Burn pits were large holes dug in the ground, some as big as a football pitch, in which all kinds of rubbish and waste from nearby US military bases was dumped and burned, sometimes with jet fuel.

The use of burn bits was a common practice of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars that began in 2001 and 2003, respectively, leaving as many as 2.5 million US veterans potentially exposed.

Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling, 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron equipment manager, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base in Balad, Iraq March 10, 2008.
An equipment manager tosses unusable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2008 [File: Julianne Showalter/USAF Handout via Reuters]

“When there’s war, there’s all kinds of things you’re not aware of and people suffer,” Schumer said. “It’s our job to make sure we take care of them once they come back. And we’re not going to rest until we deal with burn pits and all of the other illnesses that people acquired because they fought for us and risked their lives for us and risk their freedom for us.”

The “Honor Our PACT Act” legislation reforms procedures of the US Veterans Administration to allow for a medical presumption that veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now suffering from cancer, as well as respiratory and cardiac diseases, are entitled to healthcare benefits.

“You see the entire veterans community united as one to get this done,” Stewart also said during Tuesday’s news conference. “After 20 years of fighting, this is what it finally comes down to.”

To pass, the legislation needs at least 60 votes in the US Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 51-vote majority with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as a tie-breaker.

Senator Marco Rubio, a leading Republican, has supported the bill and Schumer appeared confident on Tuesday that he has the votes. “We are at a turning point,” he said.

The bill was passed in the US House of Representatives by a 256-174 vote on March 3 with support from 34 Republicans.

Danielle Robinson, whose husband died of a rare lung concern from exposure to burn pits, acknowledges applause after being recognized by President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress .
Danielle Robinson, whose husband US Army Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson died of a rare form of lung cancer, was recognised by President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address [File: Win McNamee/Pool via Reuters]

The legislation is strongly backed by President Joe Biden whose son Beau Biden had served in the US army near burn pits in Iraq for a year in 2008-2009, and died of a rare brain cancer in 2015.

Biden pushed for passage of the legislation in his State of the Union address on March 1.

While it is unknown whether toxins from a burn pit caused his son’s cancer, or those of many other soldiers, the US government should not wait to provide services to veterans in need, Biden has said.

“When our troops came home, the fittest among them – the greatest fighting force in the history of the world – too many of them were not the same; headaches, dizziness, numbness, cancer,” Biden said in remarks at a VA medical clinic in Fort Worth on March 8.

The problem is reminiscent of the “Agent Orange” sickness that emerged among veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to the highly toxic defoliant sprayed over the country’s jungles in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The government of Vietnam said in 2007 that as many as three million Vietnamese people suffered birth defects and other health problems as a result of Agent Orange.

The burn pits legislation is backed by major US veterans groups including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Military Officers Association of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the US and the Disabled American Veterans.

Source: Al Jazeera