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An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008.

An airman tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit at Balad Air Base, Iraq, on March 10, 2008. (Julianne Showalter/U.S. Air Force)

Generation after generation, Americans have gone to war, backed by the promise that their country would care for them when they came home.

And yet, for decades our veterans have returned home only to face a different kind of battle: fighting a bureaucracy for the care and benefits they earned from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson was one of those veterans.

Heath’s story is far too familiar among our military men and women. Like many Americans, he answered the call of duty and deployed to Kosovo and Iraq with the Ohio National Guard as a healthy and active soldier. While deployed, he was exposed to potent toxins from burn pits—the massive areas used by the U.S. military to dispose of everything from human waste, medical waste, plastics, rubber and other chemicals, set on fire with jet fuel.

Thirteen short years after his first deployment, he lost his life to a rare autoimmune disease and stage 4 lung cancer — conditions undoubtedly related to toxic exposure.

Heath left behind an 8-year-old daughter, a wife and an extended family who are now committed to ensuring this country provides for other veterans what it could not for Heath — the support he needed to survive.

VA estimates more than 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans may have been exposed to toxic substances in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, many of these men and women have suffered from rare, deadly cancers, respiratory conditions, and other debilitating illnesses that have often developed years after their service in the military.

As leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we are determined to right this wrong. For years, our offices have been flooded with calls, emails and visits from hundreds of veterans, and from Veterans Service Organizations, advocates and survivors sharing the painful and harrowing effects of toxic exposures on our fighting men and women.

The Senate is currently considering our Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 — a historic bill named for Heath that addresses decades of inaction and delays by the U.S. government.

If passed, this legislation would expand eligibility for VA health care to more than 3.5 million post-9/11 combat veterans exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also remove the burden of proof for 23 presumptive conditions caused by military toxic exposures, from cancers to lung disease, and codify a framework to establish future presumptions of service connection.

In short, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our PACT Act would allow hundreds of thousands of veterans across the country to access the VA care they had previously been denied.

To address this influx of veterans, VA would be given the tools it needs to bolster its workforce, establish more health care facilities, and improve claims processing.

This country is very capable of recognizing the physical, obvious wounds of war — a lost limb, a chemical burn. And we are improving our ability to recognize the mental wounds of war, though we have a ways to go. No longer can we ignore the wounds of war from toxic exposure — the wounds that may not become apparent until years later.

There is always a cost to war — and that cost is never fully paid when that war ends.

Our country did not live up to its promise to veterans like Heath Robinson. But we can do right by millions of other veterans and families by honoring the plea of his 8-year-old daughter Brielle to “fight for the heroes who fought for our country and pass my dad’s bill.”

Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, is ranking member of the committee.


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