Batteries. Tires. Plastics. Chemicals. Ammunition. Medical and human waste. Disposal of the hazardous refuse from fighting the long war against terrorism has generally involved tossing everything into vast pits dug into the desert and then setting it on fire. The favored accelerant: jet fuel.
Where these pits were located varied, but too often they were close enough to operating military bases that thick, toxic smoke wafted over the areas where America’s fighting men and women lived and worked. The harm may not have been immediately apparent, but the nation must be better prepared to aid those suffering serious problems that may develop years after exposure: rare cancers, autoimmune disorders and serious respiratory conditions.
Congress took an important step forward in late 2019 by passing the “Burn Pits Accountability Act,” a bill that will boost tracking and documentation of veterans’ exposure. But as important as this legislation is, much more needs to be done. Still necessary and urgent: ensuring that veterans with burn-pit conditions get the service-connected benefits they need and deserve.
“Shockingly, the VA is rejecting 80% of claims by veterans related to their burn pit exposure,” according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did not dispute the 80% figure when contacted by an editorial writer last week. The VA spokesman instead cited the small percentage of such claims. “From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2019, burn pit related claims accounted for less than one-tenth of a percent of all VA claims processed — 13,650 of 15.44 million claims,” the VA spokesman said.
In addition, the spokesman pointed to the department’s research into burn-pit health problems, citing the new “Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence” as the “latest example” of the VA’s commitment to this.
And as for the small percentage of burn-pit related claims processed by the VA, that figure dodges the issue raised by IAVA — that a high percentage of burn-pit claims that are made are rejected. In addition, conditions related to burn pit exposure may take years to develop, so veterans exposed to the fumes may not yet be filing claims.
The VA’s superficial statement suggests that the department does not grasp the scope of the problem or the urgency in addressing IAVA’s concerns. Unfortunately, the department has a dismal record when it comes to helping those who develop disease years after their service. A shameful example is the long fight by Vietnam War veterans for benefits after “Agent Orange” herbicide exposure.
Proposed solutions for veterans harmed by burn pits include easing the standard of proof to receive service-related disability benefits, according to Military Times. The VA should also ensure that they get timely care in a medical system where wait times for appointments have been a concern. These are sensible actions and merit support.
The Burn Pits Accountability Act, passed in December, nevertheless is milestone legislation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and presidential candidate, served as the lead author on the Senate bill. The information gathered will play a vital role in tracking harm and treating it. It also strongly signals congressional concern. IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler called the legislation a “huge” and “tactical victory” during an interview last week.
Klobuchar’s work on this issue and other veterans concerns is commendable, and we urge Minnesota’s congressional delegation to work with her, IAVA and other veterans service organizations on next steps. “By learning from our past mistakes, we can prevent toxic burn pits from becoming this generation’s Agent Orange,” Klobuchar said. “Our veterans and military personnel cannot wait any longer to receive the proper care and benefits they deserve.”