Having the backs of our veterans

Op-ed by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

The stories should make us all outraged.

The story of a Kitsap County veteran who served overseas — put in proximity to burn pits where waste, including chemicals, munitions, metals, rubber, food and medical products, are burned in the open air. After their deployment, they developed medical problems requiring them to get a major operation.

As the representative for our region, I’ve heard these stories — and far too many others — firsthand. It motivated me to dig into the issue further. Here’s what I discovered.

Unfortunately, during their time in service, far too many members of our military were exposed to toxic substances, often from burn pits. Burn pits are a common waste disposal practice for many military sites outside the United States — including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other countries throughout the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Exposure to toxic substances has led to serious long-term health problems for affected veterans. These veterans should be receiving the top-notch care and benefits they have earned and deserve. But in recent years, that hasn’t been the case. Most of the people I have spoken with have faced challenges in receiving benefits and having their claims correctly processed.

This is not just a problem for a few folks. Nationwide, it has been estimated that up to 3.5 million veterans deployed post-9/11 were exposed to toxic substances during their service. However, the Veterans Administration has denied nearly 75 percent of burn pit-related disability claims. That means that ill veterans are denied the benefits and care they have earned — leaving them with disability and medical bills. That is unacceptable.

We have a duty to protect the health and safety of all service members and ensure that veterans have access to the high-quality healthcare. If you have served our country, we should have your back.

Earlier this spring, the House of Representatives passed the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2021 — bipartisan legislation I co-sponsored to address the full range of issues impacting exposed veterans. The PACT Act will:

• Provide priority health care for over 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans.

• Provide an extension of combat eligibility for health care from five to 10 years with a one-year open enrollment period for those veterans who missed their window.

• Streamline VA’s review process for establishing toxic exposure presumptions.

• Concede exposure to airborne hazards/burn pits based on locations and dates of service.

• Establish a presumption of service connection for 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers related to burn pits/airborne hazards exposure.

• Commission studies related to incidents of cancer among veterans, health trends of post 9/11 veterans and feasibility of providing healthcare to dependents of veterans

• Requiring VA to conduct outreach and provide resources to toxic exposed veterans.

I’ll keep pushing to get it across the finish line. Our nation is stronger, and our world is safer because of the service of the men and women in the armed forces. Our nation must do everything we can to ensure those who serve are valued and cared for now and in the future.

Derek Kilmer is the U.S. representative for the 6th Congressional District.