US 'burn pit' War Veterans Want Health Benefits
During his trip to Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday, Joe Biden advocated for better health benefits and medical care for military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned with chronic illnesses caused by burn pit exposure.
As the father of Beau Biden, who died in 2015 of a rare brain cancer after serving in Iraq, Biden is asking Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide treatment for an increasing number of veterans suffering from respiratory conditions and cancer.
"When our troops came home, even the fittest among them, the greatest fighting force in history got headaches, dizziness, numbness, cancer," Biden said at a VA clinic in Fort Worth.
We don't know enough about the link between burn pits and each of these ailments some of our veterans are facing now, Biden said, adding the VA "should prefer caring for our vets while we learn more", not waiting.
Burn pits consisted of large holes dug in the ground, some measuring as large as a football field, into which trash and waste from nearby US military bases is dumped and sometimes burnt with jet fuel.
A similar problem emerged among Vietnam War vets who were exposed to highly toxic defoliant sprayed over the jungles. There were 2.5 million potentially exposed veterans during the wars beginning in 2001 when the US military used burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than one hundred veterans a year die of rare cancers and other chronic diseases that can be attributed to exposure to airborne toxins from fire pits, experts say. This includes young adults who are otherwise healthy.
Forth Worth veterans suffering from environmental toxins from burn pits will receive a briefing from VA doctors and nurses coming up. Biden and VA Sec. Denis McDonough will meet with them. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the president plans to speak on expanding access to care for veterans who have been exposed to harmful substances.
The VA is pioneering new ways of linking toxic exposures to diseases, which has already helped veterans get their benefits, he had said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would ensure veterans get burn pit exposure healthcare that they've never received before.
Biden's push gives veterans' advocates hope that Congress and the administration will address a problem of delay and denial that has troubled the VA for more than a decade, said Patrick Murray, legislative director of VFW, which represents ex-military.
As Murray stated, "We need to take care of this fast, getting people into the VA for preventative care, getting bloodwork, and receiving primary care early and often so they are not suffering from end-stage illnesses or have horrible cancers when they end up there," he added.
Al Jazeera quoted Murray as saying, "We want to catch these things early so people can live full lives.".
It said that the US House of Representatives passed a bill last week aimed at reforming the VA's processes to ensure veterans get care for chemical exposures. There is a Senate bill that is on hold.
What this legislation does, and that's actually pretty good, is makes the VA get a medical opinion if the contention is burn pit exposure.
Rossie Torres was a veteran advocate for years after her husband, US Army veteran Le Roy Torres, got sick and was forced out of his job as a Texas state trooper. They formed a group to help vets in 2010 called Burn Pits 360. They now see Congress as being prepared to act, in part due to Vice President Biden's experience with his son Beau.
Those they lost have been buried. And it was a slow, agonizing death for their children, their son, their daughter, their husband, their wife. And they were all very young. " "It gives us hope..." Torres told Al Jazeera. "There are so many Beau Bidens who have worked for this.".