House Committee takes up bill on veterans' toxic exposure to burn pits

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Posted at 3:11 PM, May 05, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. - Retired Air Force Major Sgt. Brian Graves was exposed to burn pits during deployments overseas during the early- to mid-2000s.

"At the time, we really didn't think much it: 'Okay, they're burning trash,'" said Graves.

Fast forward to today. Graves, who lives in Yorktown, experiences respiratory issues and needs two inhalers. He attributes the health problems to exposure to burn pits.

"Every morning, I wake up my chest is tight and my throat is ... closed up," he said.

Members of the military burned trash and other items in burn pits, particularly during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It's been an obstacle for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs to recognize their health issues. Over the past decade or so, around 14,000 veterans have filed disability claims for exposure to burn pits, but only about 4,000 of the claims were granted, according to Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia).

"These are people who served our country and were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and we need to take care of them," said Luria, who has introduced a bill to help these veterans get the care they need.

Members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs held a hearing on Wednesday on a series of bills, including Luria's, meant to help the veterans.

"The VA has been slow to take their concerns to correlate their service and the toxic exposure to these health conditions," said Luria.

During the hearing, VA leadership said they recognize the problem, but aren't taking a position on the bills. VA Sec. Dennis McDonough was sworn into his position in February.

"It is imperative that we let the secretary roll out his vision, his plan, his directive, so no individual views on the bill specifically, but a reiteration that the secretary has made toxic exposure a number one priority," said Robert Burke, Deputy Undersecretary for Policy and Oversight.

The legislation would help streamline care to the veterans because it can be hard to prove today what they breathed in years ago.

"That takes the burden of proof off the veteran so they can show through their military records that they served in those combat zones during this time frame and it's presumed they had exposure to these toxic substances," said Luria.

Graves said he'd consider applying for a VA claim in the future if the legislation passes and thinks it could be a big help.

"It's something that needs to be addressed because who knows how big this will get in the future," he said.