Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, speaks at a press conference on legislation to provide health care for veterans exposed to burn pits. June 7, 2022. Credit: Jennifer Shutt.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate came up short Wednesday in trying to move ahead on legislation that would provide health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits overseas.
The bill, from Montana Democratic Sen. John Tester and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, has been bogged down for nearly two months as U.S. lawmakers debated whether to bring amendments to the floor and how exactly to fix a minor part of the bill that stalled the process in the House.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 55-42 to advance the bill toward final passage, but that did not meet a 60-vote threshold and the legislation stalled, though supporters could call for another vote.
In the works for a decade
Tester said before the procedural vote that the legislation has been in the works for well over a decade and that he as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and Moran as ranking member have been working on it for nearly two years.
“It’s a bill that allows us, the American people, to live up to the promises we make our active duty military when they come home with an injury, in this case toxic exposure,” Tester said.
“In World War I it was mustard gas. Radiation in World War II. Of course, Agent Orange in the Vietnam War,” Tester said. “We’ve had toxic exposure over and over and over again. In the Middle East it’s burn pits.”
Those open-air pits would be filled with various types of trash, including medical waste, rubber, plastics and other hazardous materials. They would then be lit on fire, sometimes with the assistance of jet fuel.
The burn pits were often close to where soldiers lived and worked while deployed overseas, predominantly in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A Pentagon spokesperson said Wednesday there are three active burn pits within U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — which covers 21 Middle Eastern nations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt — and one active burn pit within the area covered by U.S. Africa Command.
“All of them are being operated by host nation civilians or host nation military partners and none by U.S. forces,” the spokesperson said. “Both AFRICOM and CENTCOM are working with their military counterparts to minimize risk to personnel from burn pit operation.”
Those figures are slightly different from mid-June, when a Department of Defense spokesperson said U.S. Central Command had four active burn pits within its command area while U.S. Africa Command had two active burn pits within its area of operation.
3.5 million veterans
The legislation would expand eligibility for VA health care and benefits to 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits since 9/11.
It would add 23 illnesses to the list of diagnoses the VA presumes are connected to military service, ending the need for veterans with those conditions to try to prove to the federal government it’s the result of time overseas.
The measure would also expand health care and benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.
The package is expected to cost about $278.5 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Tester said Wednesday that is part of the cost of war.
“If we’re not willing to take care of our men and women when they come back from battles that we send them off to, then maybe we ought to rethink whether we’re going to send them in the first place,” Tester said.
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