By Ritch Eich
It wasn’t until several years after the Vietnam War ended that Vietnam veterans who were exposed to toxic herbicides sprayed in the jungle were granted presumptive disability benefits for illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. According to the Agent Orange Act of 1991, veterans who served anywhere in Vietnam from Jan. 9, 1962 to May 7, 1975 are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange. These veterans no longer must prove their exposure to toxic herbicides to get disability compensation.
Note the date of this law: 1991. It took 16 years after the war’s end for our government to pass this law and do the right thing for these veterans, many of whom had cancer or other ailments. The delay in offering them relief was inexcusable.
It appears the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t learned, much because it’s doing the same thing to our veterans of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern or Southwest Asian locations where Americans were put in harm’s way more recently.
In these regions, more than 3 million service members were exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogens emitted by open air burn pits that military personnel and contractors used to dispose of trash including plastics, medical waste, human waste, rubber, batteries, and other materials. Burning hazardous waste in open pits can cause respiratory diseases, eye damage, skin diseases, cardiovascular ailments, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, damage to internal organs, and more.
As we learned from our atomic veterans from World War II and Vietnam’s Agent Orange veterans, bullets and bombs aren’t the only weapons that can hurt America’s fighting men and women. Whether it’s fallout from a nuclear bomb, exposure to toxic herbicides sprayed to kill jungle foliage that gave the enemy cover, or smoke from burn pits, exposure to toxins is a cost of war that should not be ignored. Some illnesses from exposure, like cancer, can take years to show up.
We shouldn’t make sick and dying veterans jump through hoops to prove their disability. Only recently, the VA agreed to grant presumptive disability benefits to vets exposed to burn pit smoke for just three illnesses — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — and only if these conditions showed up within 10 years of overseas service.
Our government should grant wider presumptive VA disability benefits to those exposed to toxic burn pit smoke. Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, with Navy and Air Force bases at Point Mugu, Port Hueneme and in Lompoc, are home to countless veterans who might qualify for benefits.
Senators Marco Rubio, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dan Sullivan and Joe Manchin have introduced legislation this year to address veterans’ burn pit exposure. Rubio’s and Gillibrand’s bill, The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, would remove the burden of proof from the veteran to provide enough evidence to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure; the veteran would only need to submit documentation that they served in a combat zone with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War and suffer from a qualifying health condition.
The Sullivan and Manchin bill, The Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act, would recognize and concede veterans’ exposure to burn pits during deployed service. This bill does not automatically grant benefits or healthcare to veterans who served near a burn pit, or create a presumption of service connection. Veterans would still need to provide evidence of a link to a specific illness to get VA benefits.
California has six congressional representatives who served in the military in some capacity and could join the effort to get these bills passed: Mike Thompson; Jimmy Panetta; Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara; Mike Garcia, whose district includes Simi Valley; Ted Lieu; and Darrell Issa.
Getting relief to suffering veterans from our conflicts in the Middle East and Southwest Asia should be a top priority for our congressional leaders. Contact your elected officials and urge them to immediately support these efforts.
• Ritch Eich is former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, a retired Naval Reserve captain, and past chair of the board of trustees at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks. He has written five books on leadership.