As It Happens

This U.S. vet says she got sick from toxic burn pits. A new bill could help others like her

A bill that would dramatically boost health-care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan won approval Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

House passes health-care bill for veterans exposed to jet-fuel soaked trash fires in Iraq and Afghanistan

Jen Burch is a U.S. Air force veteran who became ill after being exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Afghanistan. (Submitted by Jen Burch)

Story Transcript

U.S. Air Force veteran Jen Burch still remembers the thick black smoke from the toxic burn pits in Afghanistan, where soldiers would douse everything from batteries to medical waste in jet fuel and burn it to ashes.

"You just knew … it couldn't have been good," Burch told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"But at the time, you weren't too concerned about future impacts of what that might lead to, because you were so concentrated on doing the job that you were there to do, and surviving to come home."

Those impacts caught up with her, she said, when she started suffering respiratory problems and had to be medically discharged from the military. 

Because she was still an active member of the military when she became ill, she was eventually able to secure health coverage for her treatment. But many of her fellow veterans — who didn't start showing symptoms until late — weren't so lucky.

That luck could soon change. A bill that would dramatically boost health-care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan won approval Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives. It passed by a vote of 256-174 with 34 Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting for it.

If I can use my story to continue to help and push legislation to make sure all veterans are taken care of, I'll do whatever it takes.- Jen Burch, U.S. Armed Forces veteran 

The bill's fate is unclear in the Senate, but if passed into law, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses that Vietnam veterans are presumed to have developed because of exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange. 

"If we're not willing to pay the price of war, we shouldn't go," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

Health effect of toxic burn pits unclear

The U.S. military routinely used open burn pits to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials into open burn pits during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

A 2020 study from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found that existing health studies provided insufficient evidence to determine whether exposure to burn pit emissions are linked to adverse respiratory conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. 

The authors of the study said the uncertainty doesn't mean there is no association — only that there was insufficient data to draw definitive conclusions.

U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks has spoken out against a bill to expand health-care coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, saying it's fiscally irresponsible and could worsen wait times for veterans seeking health care. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Opponents of the legislation say it would grant benefits to many veterans whose conditions may not have anything to do with their military service and tax an already stressed Veterans Affairs system, leading to longer wait times for health care and processing disability claims.

Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, a U.S. Army veteran, said she frequently hears from fellow Iowa veterans who wait months, or even years, for the benefits they earned, and said problems will only grow if the bill becomes law. 

She also noted that the bill's projected cost is more than the budgets of nine Cabinet-level departments combined.

 "We are not doing right by our veterans by being fiscally irresponsible in their name," Miller-Meeks said.

A long battle for medical coverage 

But Burch has no doubts about what caused her illness. 

She had just come from a stint in Afghanistan in April 2011 and was in Okinawa, Japan, when she started coughing and felt like she had the weight of an elephant on her chest, she said.

"I actually went from the airport straight to the emergency department because it was so bad," she said. "There I would be diagnosed immediately with bronchitis and pneumonia."

Comedian Jon Stewart hugs an attendee prior to a press conference in support of the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021, at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. The person is wearing Army fatigues and a sign that reads: 'Ask me why the soldier who wore this uniform in Iraq is dead.' (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

In 2014, she was medically discharged from the military, and she's been in and out of hospitals with breathing difficulties ever since. She says she's been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, migraines, restrictive lung disease and a ground-glass nodule in her lungs.

But it took her another seven years to convince the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cover her medical costs.

"I had to be my own medical advocate, my own lawyer, my own social worker, and I had to build my own case, bring all these medical reports, letters from doctors, you name it, put it together, build a case and present it to the VA," she said.

The bill would make it so other vets don't have to work as hard to prove the origins of their illnesses, by designating 23 respiratory conditions and cancers as likely linked to military toxic exposures.

The only reason Burch's claim was ultimately approved, she says, is because she first became ill while in the service.

"I feel guilty sometimes, like 'why me?'" she said.

"I see other veterans who have cancers who haven't gotten their health care and benefits from the VA, and I feel guilty, or like I almost want to give them my benefits like, 'Here you go. You're much worse than I am.' But I know that's not how it works."

Joe Biden links burn pits to son's death 

U.S. President Joe Biden has voiced suspicion that his son's death from brain cancer was linked to burn pits that were in use while Maj. Beau Biden served in Iraq.

"They come home, many of the world's fittest and best trained warriors, never the same — headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin," Biden said during Tuesday's State of the Union address.

While Biden said it's unknown whether a burn pit caused his son's cancer, or the diseases of so many others who served, but added: "I'm committed to finding out everything we can."

Burch says hearing those words from Biden made her feel "seen for the first time."

She says the State of the Union address, Thursday's victory in the House, and an exhilarating press conference alongside comedian John Stewart, a longtime champion of veterans issues, has given her a sense of hope.

"But the fight is going to be even larger and harder to get it through the Senate," she said. "If I can use my story to continue to help and push legislation to make sure all veterans are taken care of, I'll do whatever it takes."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Jen Burch produced by Kate McGillivray. 

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