Bipartisan bill looks to support veterans sickened following toxic burn pit exposure

Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 11:01 AM EDT

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Tens of thousands of veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are now fighting serious health issues. Advocates believe these warriors were sickened from toxic fumes released by the military’s burn pits, but getting the VA to cover these medical expenses can be a battle itself.

“Every night I put my son to bed. I wonder if that’s the last time I’m ever going to kiss him goodnight,” said retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black.

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wesley Black was ready to put the horrors of war behind him. After 12 years in the U.S. Army, he dreamed of focusing on his life as a husband, father and firefighter. But those hopes took a tragic turn.

“I’m 35. I shouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a death sentence,” said Black.

In combat zones, the U.S. military destroys trash using burn pits so national security is not at risk by sensitive materials left behind. Black’s doctor believes the fumes emitted from this waste caused him to develop stage four colon cancer. The VA covers Black’s care, but other veterans are facing astronomical medical expenses because their illnesses are not deemed service-connected.

“There needs to be a change in the VA system and the way that they diagnose and treat veterans coming home from these war zones where these burn pits have been used,” said Black.

There’s a bipartisan bill moving forward on Capitol Hill to ensure veterans who develop illnesses possibly linked to the burn pits receive full coverage from the VA. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio says it’s a moral obligation to care for those who put their lives on the line.

“We need to get something done. This has gone on for far too long,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

The Pentagon says further study is needed, as scientific evidence so far does not directly establish a link between these illnesses and the burn pits. Rubio says waiting any longer is a price he’s not willing to pay.

“These are relatively young people that are coming back with these rare diseases and by the time that we are able to prove it, if that’s ever possible…unfortunately some have lost their lives and their families have gone bankrupt trying to pay for their medical care,” said Rubio.

The VA responded to this report saying, “We understand that Congress and veteran service organizations and advocates are working hard on this effort of toxic exposure and burn pits – and they should. But it’s important that our Veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors know that VA is seeking every avenue possible to develop a process with the utmost rigor where presumptives can be determined in a more expedient and holistic manner. We are leaning forward in this effort and working alongside Congress, federal partners, and VSOs and advocates to deliver on the President’s promise to provide the health care and access to benefits Veterans need, and quite frankly deserve. We are fully committed to this immediate and deliberate approach that tackles the tough questions of environmental exposure.”

Black is pursuing a medical malpractice lawsuit against the VA for not catching his colon cancer at an earlier stage. He and his lawyer argue when he first reported blood in his stool, he was misdiagnosed with IBS. They believe had he undergone additional screening back then, it could have prevented the cancer from advancing to such an aggressive stage.

“I’m a bit like a canary in the coal mine. It’s too late for me but it’s not too late for the next veteran that walks down the halls of the VA,” said Black. “If I can prevent just one family, one veteran, from going through what my family is going through, what I went through, because of my voice - then I can kneel before God and say I did one good thing with my life.”

The Gray Television Washington News Bureau reached out to the White River Junction VA Medical Center for comment. A spokesperson shared this response, “While White River Junction VA Medical Center wouldn’t typically comment on pending legislation, we would note this recent release where Secretary McDonough says “VA is establishing a holistic approach to determining toxic exposure presumption going forward. We are moving out smartly in initiating action to consider these and other potential new presumptions, grounded in science and in keeping with my authority as Secretary of VA.”

The toxic burn pits bill sponsored by Rubio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has not yet received a vote, but supporters say they believe the momentum is there for it to advance this year.

Photojournalist/Editor Tyler Smith and Producer Karen Daborowski contributed to this report.

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