Billings Gazette: Veterans call burn pit exposure bill a major win

by Tom Lutey

Answers. It’s a word that can’t be found in the 150-some page bill granting health care to U.S. troops exposed to the toxic smoke of burn pits at military outposts over the past 20 years, but it is what veterans like Jeff Schepp hope will be delivered.

Until now, medical professionals for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs haven’t treated veterans for toxic exposure. Veterans presenting symptoms believed to be associated with burn pits have been handed a survey to fill out, a chance to register their symptoms and identify exactly where it was they were exposed to toxins. That’s pretty much where the conversation has ended for more than 250,000 veterans according to VA reports.

The PACT Act, which passed the Senate 86 to 11 on Tuesday night, will spend money not only looking for answers about toxic exposure, but also treating veterans. As many as 3.5 million combat veterans have been exposed to toxics while serving, according to the Department of Defense. It is unknown how many suffer from the related medical conditions, in part because Veterans Affairs has kept inquiries about toxic exposure to a minimum.

It was just last year the VA added asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis to its list of presumptive conditions for disability claims, largely because of the registry, according to Defense Department records. But, what it didn’t do was investigate burn pits as a root cause. The the VA has no evidence-based treatments for burn pit exposure. 

“There are a lot of veterans that are suffering, and they don’t know the cause of their issues,” Schepp said Wednesday. “I think the passing of this bill will allocate funding for research, so we do know.”

Veterans’ frustration about the origins of their illness, as well as mixed diagnoses from equally confused doctors, turned up in a 2021 report published in the Annals of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. Researchers from Harvard, the California State University System, and the VA, identified 23 presumptive conditions reported by veterans registering problems from toxic exposure. The conditions included brain cancer, interstitial lung disease, and lymphomas, sleep and mood disorders, depression, cognitive impairment and respiratory illness. 

The report noted veteran frustration about “seeing too many experts who offered contrasting opinions, which caused further confusion.” One veteran said “that both Veteran doctors and those who worked outside of the VA system seemed not to know what to do with their health condition. One comment was about disillusionment about the U.S. health care system. The person felt betrayed by the system, but the person was worried about the lack of support for the family when the person is no longer around because of death from ill health.”

The full report, titled “Slow Burns: A Qualitative Study of Burn Pit and Toxic Exposures Among Military Veterans Serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Throughout the Middle East” is available for download free of charge. 

Schepp, state commander of the Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars, is one of those guys looking for answers. He didn’t know what he was being exposed to in 2004 when he was deployed. No one did. The same can be said for veterans who where exposed to oil well fires in the Gulf War, or Agent Orange in Vietnam. Veterans from those previous wars are also in the ranks of veterans getting coverage for conditions newly recognized by the just-passed PACT ACT, which is the bill’s short title.

The long title of the bill is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022. Robinson was among the veterans fighting for this health coverage for more than a decade. He died in 2020 from illnesses stemming from toxic exposure. He served in Iraq and Kosovo as member of the Ohio National Guard.

That fight by veterans to get this bill passed outlasted a lot of soldiers like Robinson. One of the big pushes now, Schepp said, is to enroll into the program veterans who are suffering before it’s too late.

There is how a to apply page online for veterans at

It’s estimated that there are 66,000 Montana veterans who were exposed, mostly through burn pits. Burn pits have been a mainstay of military life over the past 20 years.

As veteran Dylan Jefferson told Lee Montana Newspapers in May, everything on base is burned beyond use as a way of getting rid of things. If those things weren’t burned, there would be local scavengers, mostly children picking through the waste, which is also a hazard. Everything from munitions containers, medical waste, and electronics at U.S. military encampments gets burned in the pits.

Needless to say, guys like Jefferson, who supervised the burning, are messed up. His own symptoms, which flare in the middle of the night, resemble stroke-like paralyses.

Burn pits are so ubiquitous at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that a pilot can point her helicopter at the black smoke on the horizon and be confident there’s a military encampment at the other end of the flight. That’s what Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said he experienced when touring Iraq with former Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia. Webb left the Senate at the end of 2012.

“I can remember flying back to the bases where those helicopters were stationed. We flew to the burn pits. We flew to the smoke off of those burn pits,” Tester said during Wednesday press call.

Tester, is chairman of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee. A little more than a year ago, he authored a bill to cover the toxic exposure as a cost of war. That bill didn’t make it, largely because of disagreements over the expense.

Every generation of veterans has had to fight for benefits, whether its Civil War veterans fighting for pensions, or the veterans from the Spanish American War fighting for benefits. The latter were the creators of the VFW. The expense of benefits has been at the root of every fight.

The COST Act was no different. Montana’s U.S. representative, Republican Matt Rosendale, objected to the price of the bill and voted against it twice in the House. 

Tester managed to move the bill forward in the Senate by partnering with his committee’s ranking member, Republican Jerry Moran, of Kansas. Tester agreed not to bring the bill out of committee without Moran’s agreement. That deal led to a leaner bill than a version passed in the House earlier. The one passed by the Senate was about $50 billion less, though still $278 billion in total.

There haven’t been many big money bills that received better than an 86 to 11 vote recently. The National Defense Authorization Act, a $770 billion bill that passed in December 2021, was approved 88 to 11 in the Senate, but majorities in the high 80s are more likely to be seen for post office namings.

There were speed bumps. Senate Republicans who previously supported the bill as written, including Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, voted against the bill July 27 in a procedural vote that would have set the PACT Act up for passage last week. There were veterans on Capitol grounds ready to celebrate the bill’s passage July 27. When the bill stalled, veterans vowed to camp on the grounds until it passed.

When it became clear Tuesday that Republicans, Daines included, were again in support of the bill, Tester went to the camped-out vets and thanked them for their resolve. Schepp said the reversal on support for the bill July 27 sparked a flurry of phone calls and emails to senators by veterans.

“The truth is, is most people who serve in the Senate know about burn pits” Tester said. “And a lot of these folks have been over to the Middle East. They saw the burn pits. They’ve actually smelled the smoke to come off burn pits — they just didn’t smell it for an entire tour.

“How I approached it on the floor to the folks who said, ‘We can’t afford this,’ and there were a number of people who said, ‘We can’t afford this,’ I said, you’re telling me, we can’t afford to take care of our veterans? And they said, ‘Well, we just can’t afford this.’ And I said, well, then we shouldn’t send them to begin with. And I will tell you that I think that had had some impact.”