Jon Stewart, Coachella Valley Lawmaker Back Burn Pit Vets

April 14, 2021
In The News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During military operations in the Global War on Terror and the Gulf War — and before those conflicts — the U.S. military employed open-air burn pits to incinerate garbage, medical waste, plastics, and other waste from military installations.

The practice exposed millions of American men and women in uniform to carcinogenic toxic fumes released by the burn pits, which has been an ongoing health concern for veterans, according to U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., who represents the San Gorgonio Pass Area and Coachella Valley in the 36th Congressional District.

Ruiz along with veterans' advocate Jon Stewart, U.S. Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), 9/11 activist John Feal, and other veterans' advocates held a press conference Tuesday announcing legislation that aims to streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposures.

"Our veterans cannot wait," Ruiz said. "Service members are returning home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war, dying years later from lung diseases, cancers, and autoimmune diseases caused by their exposure to toxic military burn pits. The VA and DoD cannot continue to neglect this self-inflicted wound on our veterans. That's why I co-authored the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act with Senator Gillibrand to get our veterans the care they need right now."

At least 230 pits were utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many others were used across the world. The largest of these burn pits was located at Balad Air Base, Iraq, and during its operation, was comprised of 10-acres of burning trash, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, according to a news release summarizing Tuesday's press conference.

Veterans are now sick and dying from lung diseases, cancers, and respiratory illnesses after living among this toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris while serving overseas, according to the release. It is estimated that more than 3.5 million military personnel could have been exposed to burn pits, and the VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry website shows that nearly 235,000 veterans and service members have completed and submitted a questionnaire to self-report medical information about burn pit exposure.

"Under current law, a veteran who has an illness or disability must establish a direct service connection in order to be eligible for VA benefits. Direct service connections means that evidence establishes that a particular injury or disease resulting in a disability was incurred while in service in the Armed Forces. For veterans exposed to burn pits, this means they would need to provide medical evidence of a current disease or disability; provide personal or other evidence of in-service physical presence near a specific burn pit or exposure to specific toxins or substance; and provide evidence of a link between the disability or illness and exposure. Upon completion of these steps, the VA determines if there is enough evidence to provide a medical exam and continue with the disability compensation claim. Therefore, it is currently the veteran's responsibility to prove their illness or disability is directly connected to burn pit exposure," according to the news release.

Ruiz's office said the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would remove "the cumbersome — and in many cases impossible — 'burden of proof'" from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and burn pit exposure. Rather, the veteran would only need to submit documentation that they received a campaign medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and that they suffer from a qualifying health condition. Campaign medals are awarded to members of the armed forces who deploy for military operations in a designated combat zone or geographical theater.

"Presumptive conditions" include a wide range of cancers and respiratory illnesses, including: asthma that was diagnosed after service, head cancer, neck cancer, respiratory cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, reproductive cancer, lymphoma cancer, lymphomatic cancer, kidney cancer, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, melanoma, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, constrictive bronchiolitis or obliterative bronchiolitis, emphysema, granulomatous disease, interstitial lung disease, pleuritis, pulmonary fibrosis, sarcoidosis, according to Ruiz's office.

"This legislation includes presumption and actually fixes this urgent and immoral issue. Anything else just delays and denies the treatment and benefits our warriors need," Jon Stewart said.

Gillibrand was very direct.

"The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care — period," she said.