Veterans Groups Gather to Support Toxic Exposure Reform Bill

Veterans Groups Gather to Support Toxic Exposure Reform Bill
A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit just 300 yards from the runway at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in 2012. (Photo by Mark Rankin/Army)

Representatives from several veterans service organizations (VSOs) passionately called on the Senate to pass the Honoring our PACT Act during an April 19 press conference at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.


More than 60 VSOs, including MOAA, support the legislation, which would expand health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic materials or environments such as burn pits and Agent Orange from the Vietnam War.  


MOAA’s efforts have included an online advocacy campaign on the bill with hundreds of engagements in less than a month (contact your senators today), an upcoming issue of Military Officer sharing stories of those affected by toxic exposure and providing postcards for members to send to key lawmakers, and testimony to Congress from Cory Titus, MOAA’s director of government relations for veteran benefits and Guard/Reserve affairs, in support of reform efforts.


[RELATED: Major Breakthroughs on Toxic Exposure Reform From VA, Congress, White House]


“Over 60 veterans groups agree, we need the Honoring Our PACT Act passed,” said Titus, who did not attend the Kansas City event. “There is no time left for compromise: Our toxic-exposed veterans need the Senate to act.”


The legislation would increase the list of conditions that are presumed to be related to a veteran’s service, among other changes. Those who served in recent conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan have come home with asthma, migraines, cancer, and a host of other illnesses. In many cases, veterans’ health claims were not presumed to be connected to their deployment conditions and were initially denied by the VA.


The House passed the bill in March, but the Senate has yet to take it up. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has expressed support for the legislation. However, some senators have raised concerns about cost and the ability for the VA to process an increase in health claims that could result from this bill.


VFW National Commander-in-Chief Matthew “Fritz” Mihelcic posed a question for those legislators concerned about these issues.


“They think veterans waiting too long is a problem,” Mihelcic told the assembled crowd. “Isn’t it better to be in line waiting for something, than to not have a line exist at all?”


The VSO representatives were joined by Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Jon Stewart, longtime host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and advocate for veterans affected by burn pit exposure. During a fiery and emotional speech, Stewart said not taking care of sick veterans is a “moral outrage” and that Congress can’t wait any longer to pass this bill.


[RELATED: Toxic Exposure Reforms Hang in the Balance as Senate Takes Up Critical Bill]


Several of the speakers shared their health issues from serving during wartime. Air Force veteran Kevin Hensley discussed his terminal lung condition called constrictive bronchiolitis, which he attributes to being exposed to burn pits in Iraq.


“We have people here that have sacrificed everything to defend this country,” Stewart said. “And we are treating them like the trash that is burned in those pits.”


The daughter of an Army mother, Davis co-sponsored the Honoring Our PACT Act in the House and hopes her colleagues in the Senate will pass the legislation.


“This is not just honoring what we have promised but honoring what’s right and what needs to be done,” Davis told the crowd. “We made that pact with veterans when the answer to the call for service was given.”


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About the Author

Kipp Hanley
Kipp Hanley

Hanley is a former staff writer at MOAA.