Last week’s Veterans Day celebrations around Ohio are a reminder of our obligation to serve those who serve and protect our country. On the Veterans’ Affairs Committee – the most bipartisan committee in the Senate – we work to ensure America’s veterans are getting the care and benefits that befit their service to our nation, and to make sure VA works for veterans and their families.
Servicemembers put their lives and their health on the line every day to keep us safe – even those who come home safely can face long-term health complications from their service.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military relied on open-air burn pits to dispose of waste, including tires, batteries, and medical waste. The smoke from those pits could be toxic – some early studies have linked burn pit exposure to respiratory and neurologic issues.
The military didn’t issue any guidance to keep servicemembers away from the pits until 2011. That means millions of servicemembers – as many as 3.5 million since 2001, according to the VA – were potentially exposed to toxic smoke.
For years, veterans and their families have led efforts to get our country to take this issue seriously, and to get exposed veterans the testing and health care they need. In 2019, we successfully worked to get the Burn Pit Accountability Act signed into to law as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. It requires that servicemembers be evaluated for toxic exposure during routine medical exams, and directs the Department of Defense to share whether each servicemember was stationed near an open-air burn pit.
During the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing last week, I pressed Under Secretary of Defense Gil Cisneros on the Defense Department’s implementation of this law. The secretary assured veterans that DOD has put measures in place to track where burn pits took place and keep track of servicemembers who might have been exposed.
As the DOD works to implement the Burn Pit Accountability Act, more can still be done to support our servicemembers who have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
Earlier this year I introduced the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act with my colleague Senator Portman. This bill is named in honor of Heath Robinson, a Central Ohio veteran who passed away last year and was exposed to burn pits while deployed.
The SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act, would require the VA to submit a biannual report to Congress on the number of veterans who have reported burn pit exposure and statistics on their current conditions.
We need to ensure that law is implemented quickly and effectively, to finally take steps to help connect the dots between exposure to burn pits and the illnesses that so many of our veterans have developed.
Our veterans sacrifice so much already to serve our country. They shouldn’t be paying for the mistakes of the departments that were supposed to serve them.