The Cost of War Act: Giving veterans help after exposure to ‘burn pit’ toxins, nerve gas, combat poisons

Veterans Voices

(WTNH) — On this Veterans Day a renewed push to help veterans exposed to toxins during their service.

According to the Veterans Administration, 3.5 million veterans are eligible to record their exposure in what’s called “the burn pit.”

“Burn pits” are basically holes in the ground on a military base where waste is burned for disposal. They are no longer used. But for those soldiers who were exposed, it’s been a battle to get help.

Rich Bates, 63, of East Hartford, is a retired chief master sergeant in the Air National Guard, developed colon cancer five years after his last deployment. He also has lung issues. Bates believes both are related to bad air quality in the deserts of Kuwait and Afghanistan where he served.

“In my opinion, they’re doing the same thing that they did to the Vietnam vets with Agent Orange,” said Bates, now a retired state worker. Bates is talking about the Veterans Administration (VA) and their denial of health benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxic Agent Orange used in Vietnam.

Now, toxic burn pits are the latest concern. Bates says the fine powdery sand in the desert was loaded with toxic smoke. And according to him, the Navy tested the sand: “They found there were many toxins in there, 10 times more than what the EPA would allow in the US.”

The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs are researching health links to exposure and launching a “burn pit” registry for soldiers deployed in the first Gulf War in 1991.

As of April 1, 2019, there were 173,195 veterans enrolled. State breakdowns updated to Dec. 31, 2018, show 832 from Connecticut.

President Joe Biden’s son Beau died in 2015 after a battle with brain cancer. The president says he believes his son’s cancer was linked to exposure to burn pits during his deployment to Iraq.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is the chair of the Senate Veterans Committee and is supporting a Cost of War Bill.

“We wanna make sure that the process for recognizing the effects of burn pits and other toxic exposures is right away, real-time, not years or decades later,” Blumenthal said.

The bipartisan bill would allow 3.5 million veterans to have immediate and lifelong access to health care from the government.

“Veterans should not be forced to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole and red tape that the Vietnam era veterans did for Agent Orange,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “There is a stain on the United States that we made them wait that long.”

Bates, now a cancer survivor, has good health care from a previous job. But he says many don’t have that luxury. “When you knock on the door and the door slammed in your face, how many times do you go back to that door.”

The bill is currently being negotiated in Congress. Senator Blumenthal says the first step is to register if you think you were exposed: https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/registry.asp.

The Veterans Affairs website says you are eligible to participate in the registry if you were deployed to the Southwest Asia theater of operations any time after Aug. 2, 1990, or Afghanistan or Djibouti on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Regions and countries include Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Djibouti, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, waters of the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea. Operations and campaigns include Desert Shield and Desert Storm (ODS/S), Iraqi Freedom (OIF), Enduring Freedom (OEF), and New Dawn (OND).

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