A panel of experts look on during a briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 30, 2019, at the start of a short documentary video on troops who suffered from exposure to toxins released from burn pits at overseas locations.

A panel of experts look on during a briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 30, 2019, at the start of a short documentary video on troops who suffered from exposure to toxins released from burn pits at overseas locations. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The House and Senate are making coordinated efforts to help veterans suffering from illnesses believed to be caused by toxic exposure during overseas deployments.

Lawmakers have introduced two dozen bills this congressional session to address the difficulty these veterans face in securing benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees announced Tuesday they would hold coordinated hearings to look at all the legislation.

The Senate committee scheduled a hearing Wednesday, and the House hearing is planned May 5.

“It is critical that we hear from experts and veteran stakeholders as we figure out the best way to care for all veterans who’ve been exposed to toxic substances – regardless of where or when they’ve served,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House committee.

Throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars, the military used open-air pits to burn garbage, jet fuel, paint, medical waste, plastics and more. Veterans diagnosed with cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages have blamed exposure to the toxic fumes. However, the VA has contended that there is not sufficient evidence to support those claims.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate committee, said this moment was a “historic opportunity” to address the issue of military toxic exposure. Some lawmakers introduced legislation targeted at the issue this session because of the support they believed would come from the White House.

Biden has said he believes toxic smoke is to blame for brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015. Beau Biden was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and was exposed to burn pits during a deployment to Iraq.

“I believe having that kind of support from the White House will make an extraordinary difference,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said earlier this month.

Gillibrand and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced one of the most comprehensive bills to address the issue. Theirs would streamline the process for veterans to get benefits.

Currently, veterans must provide proof of their medical conditions and evidence of their locations at specific burn pits or points where the exposure occurred. Then, they must undergo a medical exam and start a disability compensation claim, which can take years. Under the proposed bill, veterans would need to prove only that they deployed to parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa since 1990 and suffer from a condition associated with toxic exposure.

It remained uncertain Tuesday whether the bill would have the backing of the VA or the White House.

When asked about the congressional effort during a news conference Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough did not give a definite answer about whether he would support the bills. He said the department was holding quarterly meetings about the issue and aggressively searching for scientific data that could help them discover trends about illnesses related to toxic exposures.

McDonough encouraged veterans to file claims with the VA, which could help the department discover patterns.

“I urge veterans to come forward with their claims,” he said. “Our commitment is to treat each claim with the care it deserves. As we get more claims, we can aggregate those claims to draw some bigger conclusions about what our veterans have experienced.”

Some veterans have filed claims, only to fight for their benefits through multiple rejections. National Guard veteran Cynthia Aman was diagnosed with a rare, progressive form of lung cancer after deploying to the Middle East, where she was exposed to burn pits. The VA denied Aman’s claims for benefits multiple times for several years before she won her case.

“I became my own researcher, attorney and subject-matter expert,” Aman said earlier this month. “It sparked a fire in me to help as many veterans as possible, because many are sick and dying and they don’t have the strength or voice left to carry on the mission.”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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