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Opinion Veterans exposed to hazardous burn pits may finally get the help they deserve

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard Carmichael disposes of trash at the burn pit of Forward Operating Base in Zeebrudge, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on March 6, 2013. (Anthony L. Ortiz/AFP/Getty Images)

When they left their homes to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were perfectly healthy young people. Now, they are struggling with debilitating and sometimes life-threatening lung diseases.

That’s the reality for thousands of U.S. servicemen and women who were exposed to hazardous pollutants from burn pits the military used to dispose of its waste in the post-9/11 wars. As is often the case with veterans’ issues, their plight has long been dismissed or ignored. From 2007 to 2020, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied almost 80 percent of all disability claims related to burn pit exposures, pointing to the scant and inconclusive evidence on whether burn pits are to blame for these illnesses.

But change might be on the horizon, thanks to a bipartisan effort to rectify burn pit injuries and recognize that those who served our country should not have to bear the burden of proving they deserve health care.

This month, the House passed a sweeping, bipartisan bill that would expand health-care eligibility for veterans exposed to burn pits during their service. The bill, supported by all Democrats and 34 Republicans, would guarantee that veterans with 23 health conditions — such as cancer, chronic bronchiolitis and emphysema — no longer have to prove that their illnesses were the result of their military service to gain access to benefits. The bill would be a significant investment in the health of veterans, amounting to more than $300 billion over a decade.

The House bill still has a difficult road to becoming law. Critics say it costs too much and fear that it could put stress on the already strained Veterans Health Administration. But even those critics still generally support action on the issue. Some point to the much narrower bill the Senate unanimously passed last month that would increase availability of toxic exposure screening and double the amount of time that veterans can receive VA health care after discharge, from five to 10 years.

Reconciling those two approaches will be difficult, but the momentum to address the problem is encouraging. President Biden, who has said he believes burn pits might have contributed to the death of his son Beau of cancer, traveled last week promoting the issue. Even if legislation fails to reach Mr. Biden’s desk, his administration has signaled that it will seek to expand eligibility for benefits to burn pit victims in the next year. Though legislation would be better, the prospect of administration action is good news for veterans, who have long struggled to draw attention to their health-care needs.

Activists often compare burn pits to Agent Orange, the herbicide the military used to clear jungles in the Vietnam War. The chemical sickened thousands of veterans, but it took the government years to recognize its effect. The government would do well to avoid another such disgraceful episode. As the United States grapples with the legacy of its war in Afghanistan, it should not avoid facing the immense toll that such conflicts have had on our troops.

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