Billings Gazette: Tester rolls out toxic exposure bill for veterans

by Tom Lutey

Acknowledging the federal government’s failure to treat military veterans exposed to toxic substances like Agent Orange and burn pit smoke, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester rolled out sweeping legislation Tuesday to assure health care and disability compensation.

Tester, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said the body will begin work this week on the Compensation and Overdue Support for Troops, or COST of War Act. The bill grants immediate access to health care and disability services for all veterans exposed to toxic substances during military service.

The bill would expand access to some 3.5 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while extending services to those still not recovered from toxic exposure in the Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars.

“Taking care of our veterans truly is a cost of war. It’s a cost of war that we need to make sure that we’re paying,” Tester said during a Tuesday press call. “The bottom line is that this bill is veteran focused. … And it includes bipartisan ideas from veterans, and advocates to provide all generations of toxic exposure veterans, no matter their age, or which war they serve in, the earned benefits and care.”

This is the most consequential bill for veterans’ health in the last 50 years, said Timothy Peters, Department of Montana VFW Adjutant. A Gulf War veteran, Peters said he has personally struggled to secure VA health care services from toxic exposure related to oil wells set ablaze by Iraqi forces.

“Imagine being in Kuwait City, Kuwait, in 1991. With 600 oil well fires burning, your plane lands on the runway, and you taxi in the middle of the afternoon. It’s pitch black, you think it’s midnight. Now, while you’re loading and unloading your plane and doing your work, you’re inhaling all these toxic fumes from the oil well fires,” Peters said.

“I’m one of those veterans. I was in my 20s and very healthy. As soon as the war was over, we all got back home. Shortly after that, I started discovering ailments. And it continues, and continues to worsen, even today,” Peters added.

“So, we had no idea what we were doing was going to be exposing us to toxins. But we did what we were supposed to do, we did our job. And we were proud to do it. So, what we need to do now is take care of our service members, and our veterans from World War One, World War Two through the future veterans that are going to be coming through.”

The bill sets up a procedure for Veterans Affairs to process claims of toxic exposure. The VA has never had a process for addressing toxic exposure, Tester said. Often veterans struggle to prove exposure because the Department of Defense makes no record of the occurrence. Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Defense don’t communicate well about toxic exposure.

Often, Congress has responded to historic toxic exposure by prescribing laws to unknot health care challenges for a select group of veterans, such as those exposed to Agent Orange, but did nothing for veterans exposed in the future, said Alex Morosky, Wounded Warriors government affairs specialist. Young enlistees understand the risks of combat, but not toxic exposure.

“What they likely did not understand was the very real possibility that they would experience prolonged exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits and other hazardous chemicals that they would not be able to avoid, and that these resulting serious illnesses, respiratory illnesses, cancers and other conditions that would follow them long after they return home,” Morosky said.

“Then, in addition to the problems caused by those illnesses, they come to find out it’s extremely difficult to get their claims for service connection granted by VA.”

The price of expanded coverage is not included in the COST of War Act.