New legislation could force the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay the medical bills of more veterans with health problems linked to burn pit exposure.
“You know to me he was larger than life,” said Tammy McCracken a Fayette County widow whose husband Colonel David McCracken died of brain cancer in 2012. His death came soon after his return from Iraq and diagnosis in Atlanta.
“I wouldn’t find out till nearly a year later that you know there was these toxins that he was exposed to well in Iraq, and he died eleven months after that diagnosis,” said McCracken.
McCracken is one of more than 5,000 veterans whose families believe their cancers, lung diseases and in many cases, deaths are linked to toxic burn pit fumes, according to the non-profit Burn Pits 360.
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More than 200,000 veterans have added their names to a national airborne hazards and burn pits registry with the Veterans Affairs Department rejecting most disability claims tied to the registered veterans reporting exposure symptoms. “The VA is rejecting 80-percent of veterans with symptoms who come and ask for claims so, something’s clearly not right,” said Dr. David Shulkin former Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
The government said it continues to research whether their exposure is the main link to respiratory illnesses and several cancer diagnoses.
“It’s like burning rubber and wood at the same time, when you smell burnt plastic, just a nasty stench,” said veteran and co-founder of Burn Pits 360 LeRoy Torres in 2019.
A Channel 2 investigation in 2019 explored the concern centered on the pits where everything from medical and human waste to metal and munitions was burned. “The burn pit in Balad (Iraq) where I was stationed was approximately ten acres,” said Torres.
Burn Pits 360 formed the first registry to track veteran exposure. “I don’t think anybody in Washington would be comfortable if there was a ten-acre pit in their backyard where they were burning blown-up Humvees, paint cans, unused pharmaceuticals,” said Rosie Torres, LeRoy’s wife and the co-founder of Burn Pits 360.
Legislation requiring the VA to recognize a wide range of illnesses linked to burn pits with full benefits will be introduced in mid-September. “So, we need the VA to kind of stop messing around and saying, you know, you don’t, you don’t, we don’t. We’re not sure if you qualify for these benefits. I mean, it’s presumptive assume it you know these guys just went to war for you, fighting for our freedoms, I highly doubt they’re going to come back and want to scam the system,” said McCracken.
The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and other Toxins Act of 2020 being sponsored by Senator Kirstin Gillibrand would cover medical costs related to burn pits without the current red tape, according to Rosie Torres.
Dr. Shulkin spoke about the problem in a virtual Military Toxic Exposure Conference in August. “The Department of Veterans Affairs, as good of an organization as it is, has this wrong and that’s what this is about tonight and that’s why we need all of the help of the people watching us to make sure veterans get the help that they need right now without having to go through this adversarial process,” said Dr. Shulkin.
“I’m not a scientist and I’m not a doctor, but I’m also not an idiot,” said comedian Jon Stewart during the same conference.
He blasted defense contractors for the way waste was destroyed in the Middle East saying there’s no question service members who report exposure have suffered illnesses that the VA should recognize as being linked to burn pits. “If we have the money to go the war, we have to have the money to deal with the consequences that those who prosecute those wars have to deal with when they come home,” said Stewart.
Veterans and military families plan to gather in Washington, DC on September 15th in support of the legislation. There’s also a series of other new bills aimed at supporting exposed veterans. That includes the TEAM Act introduced in July by Senator Thom Tillis. It would require the VA to better track, research and analyze veteran illnesses tied to toxic exposure.