Megan HowardIraq and Afghanistan veterans are looking to a Vietnam group’s fight for health coverage for guidance on their fight for care after burn pit exposure.
Vietnam’s Blue Water Navy Veterans, a group who served on ships miles off the coast, are embroiled in a battle with the Department of Veterans Affairs over disability benefits related to Agent Orange exposure. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie says there is not enough scientific evidence to back up claims that their illnesses were caused by the toxic herbicide, while veterans say there is a clear link.
Advocates say the denial of claims for Blue Water vets could also be an issue for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were affected by burn pits.
“It’s very similar,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Legislative Director Tom Porter told Bloomberg Government. “We’re going to be facing the same challenges as the Blue Water Navy Veterans from Vietnam if we don’t solve their problem.”
‘WE’RE NOT GOING TO GET BULLDOZED INTO A CORNER’
Lawmakers are working to overrule VA officials who oppose a presumption of benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans. But House-passed legislation (H.R. 299) has stalled in the Senate as members attempt to find a compromise with VA officials.
“The issue of dealing with Blue Water Navy is no longer a question, it’s a matter of how we deal with Blue Water Navy,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said at a hearing last week. “We’re not going to get bulldozed into a corner, and we’re not going to bulldoze someone into a corner.”
IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETS CONCERNED
Burn pits were commonly used at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of trash including chemicals, paints and human waste. Veterans groups are pushing the department to collect more data on service members who were exposed to toxic waste via the burn pits, but officials have struggled to enroll former service members via a Burn Pit Registry.
The lack of data could lead to problems evaluating burn pit exposure — the same challenge Vietnam veterans are facing today, Porter said.
That is why veterans groups are supporting legislation (H.R. 5671), sponsored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), which would require the Defense Department to conduct health assessments for service members who were exposed to burn pits now so they’re able to make service-related disability connections sooner. The bill has not been considered in committee, and it is not clear if it will be taken up this year.