Veterans Group Sees Ally In Biden on Toxic Exposure Issue
WASHINGTON – The head of the nation’s largest advocacy group for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans predicted Tuesday that 2021 will be a very good year for those who have long sought comprehensive aid for soldiers harmed by burn pit and toxin exposure in those wars.
“It’s been a priority for us for the past two, if not three years, and we’ve made some small progress,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“But I think now, with the election of President-Elect Joe Biden, we finally have a chance at securing a much larger piece of legislation to get health care and disability benefits to those veterans who have been sickened by these toxic exposures.”
Biden has never made it a secret that he suspects toxic exposure during an overseas deployment in Iraq in November 2008 was behind his son Beau’s brain cancer.
Biden deployed with the Delaware Army National Guard to Balad Air Base in Iraq just days after his father was elected vice president. It has since been said that before, after and during the younger Biden’s time there, the U.S. military burned an estimated 140 tons of waste a day in open air burn pits.
Speaking before the Service Employees International Union in 2019, Biden said because of his son’s “exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can’t prove it yet, he came back with stage four glioblastoma. Eighteen months he lived, knowing he was going to die.”
Butler said Beau Biden, who died at 46, was just one of more than 200,000 veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other bases throughout the Middle East who have reported cancers, respiratory illnesses or neurological health problems to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Tragically, Butler said, many of their claims continue to be denied.
All told, as many as 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to burn pits that spewed toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
“We’ve made great gains in educating the public about the issue, but now we’re going to have a president who not only has a deeply personal understanding of the issue, but who is also openly supportive of getting this much needed legislation signed into law,” he said.
During the race for the White House, Biden posted a plan on his campaign website, spelling out his intention to fulfill his “sacred obligation” to care for military members and their families.
Among the changes he’s called for are expanding the list of presumptive conditions to include exposure to burn pits or other environmental toxins, and increasing research dollars by $300 million to invest in better understanding the impact of traumatic brain injury and toxic exposures.
Butler said currently there are about 15 pieces of legislation related to the issue of burn pits and toxic exposures pending in the House and Senate, but there’s little chance any will pass during the current lame duck session of Congress.
“Most of these bill addressed an area of concern or authorized studies of the issue, but two we were most excited about were the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act, introduced by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. and the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.,” Butler said.
“Both of these bills took a focused but comprehensive approach to improving how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care and benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said.
Gillibrand’s bill also includes disability benefits for the affected veterans.
“These bills would be a huge step forward for us, but unless they are included in an end-of-year omnibus bill, we’re going to have to wait until next year to restart the process,” Butler said.
“In the meantime, we intend to use the rest of the year to raise awareness of the issue among veterans and civilians, and hopefully galvanize the community around a single piece of legislation that can be reintroduced in the 117th Congress,” he added.
Another issue the IAVA will be watching closely in 2021 is the implementation of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, bipartisan legislation intended to improve veterans’ access to mental health care and stem the alarming rise in veteran suicides.
“That was a major legislative win for us, securing the resources to expand mental health care — particularly in underserved rural areas — but now the Devil really is in the details, and we are going to be focused next year on making sure it is implemented and carried out in the right way,” Butler said.
“And we still have a long way to go on this issue. The other piece of legislation we’re pushing for is one that would establish 988 as an emergency mental health care number the way 911 is currently a more general emergency hotline,” he said.
“What we want to see is not only an easy to remember number, but also that when someone calls it, they are talking to people who are trained and equipped to handle a mental health crisis — and that requires building out a service infrastructure so people can talk to trained professionals in or near their very communities.”
The third area the IAVA will be focusing on in 2021 is expanding and improving services offered to women veterans, elevating them to equal standing to their male counterparts in terms of provision of health care by the Veterans Administration.
“We need to make sure that the VA is equipped and prepared to provide the kind of support our women veterans need,” Butler said. “And that doesn’t mean simply having better counseling services for military sexual assault, it means being able to provide the whole range of women’s health services — something the VA hasn’t been set up to do.”
Because the conversation started with President-elect Biden, it only seemed appropriate to ask Butler his thoughts on who would make a good Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Butler responded by speaking not of a specific individual, but of the attributes he hopes the eventual nominee will have.
“I always focus on three primary criteria,” he said. “The first one, probably not surprisingly, is that I believe the person should be a veteran. Secondly, ideally, the person would be a medical doctor or some sort of medical primary care practitioner — after all, we’re talking about the largest integrated health care provider in the country.
“And the third qualification, frankly, is someone that has experience managing a very large organization. The VA has the second largest budget in the federal government. It has something like 300,000 employees.
“So, ideally, the president will be able to find someone with experience or a background in all three areas. Now, I admit, that’s a hard thing to do,” Butler said. “I think you’ll find that most VA secretaries have two of those qualities, but rarely have any of them had all three of them. But they do it. It just comes down to a commitment to look for that person.”