Senate passes PACT Act, latest effort in yearslong fight to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

Denis McDonough, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, had a special mission Saturday: deliver pizza to veterans camped out at the U.S. Capitol – and broker a call with President Joe Biden.

A bill providing long-sought benefits for ailments tied to toxic burn pit exposure stalled in Congress unexpectedly last week when Republicans yanked their support.

“America has a lot of obligations, (but) only one truly sacred obligation – I mean this from the bottom of my heart: that is to care for those and prepare those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home,” Biden told the veterans over FaceTime. “As long as I have a breath in me, we’re going to fight to get this done. As long as I have a breath in me.”

That frustration turned to elation Tuesday when Senate leaders negotiated a compromise and passed the measure 86-11, sending it on to Biden for his signature.

The bill, known as the PACT Act, or honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics bill, will fund research and benefits for as many as 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during service.

It was the product of months of bipartisan negotiation and had passed the Senate with overwhelming Republican support in June, but two dozen GOP senators reversed course last week and blocked final passage, drawing rebukes from lawmakers, veterans' groups and comedian and advocate Jon Stewart.

Veterans, military family members and advocates are joined by activist Jon Stewart as they call for Senate Republicans to change their votes on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2021.
Veterans, military family members and advocates are joined by activist Jon Stewart as they call for Senate Republicans to change their votes on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Aug. 1, 2021.

What is the PACT Act: Jon Stewart, Ted Cruz feud over bill to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

Related: Vermont veterans are dying from toxic exposure - Getting them help is a 'long-haul effort'

Republicans who initially voted against advancing the bill, including Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ted Cruz of Texas, cited worries that language in the bill could allow unrelated spending.  

“These senators need to remember that it is the veteran that paid the price for their freedoms, the life they live and the fresh air that they breathe,” Tim Borland, national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement. The VFW boasts 1.5 million regular and auxiliary members. “We will not let the voices of veterans sick and dying from toxic exposure be ignored.”

Veterans and advocates set up camp outside the Capitol, vowing not to leave until the legislation passes. They lined up Tuesday to witness the vote in the Senate chamber.

Among those who came to Washington was Susan Zeier, whose son-in-law Heath Robinson died from lung cancer in 2020 at age 39. Robinson had served in Iraq as a member of the Ohio National Guard in 2006 and was exposed to toxic smoke from burning refuse.

Heath Robinson of Pickerington, Ohio, blamed his cancer on toxic smoke from trash burning pits while serving in Iraq.
Heath Robinson of Pickerington, Ohio, blamed his cancer on toxic smoke from trash burning pits while serving in Iraq.

Tons of waste burned every day for years

The U.S. military often burned waste in large pits in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, including plastic, rubber, chemicals, paint and medical and human waste.

“Open-air combustion of trash and other waste in burn pits was a common practice,” the VA says.  In 2010, the Government Accountability Office reported there were more than 250 such pits in Afghanistan and nearly two dozen in Iraq.

Large bases produced 60,000 to 85,000 pounds of waste a day, according to Pentagon estimates cited by researchers. At one base in Iraq, Joint Base Balad, which housed as many as 25,000 troops and other personnel, as much as 200 tons of waste a day was burned. Use of the pits was reduced after Congress passed legislation in 2009 restricting their use.   

What are burn pits?: Why were burn pits used? Toxic fumes, medical risks explained.

Exposure to smoke from the fires caused temporary health problems for many troops – burning eyes, coughing and difficulty breathing. But for others, the damage may have been far graver, depending on materials burned and the extent of exposure.

Thousands of veterans have blamed exposure for numerous conditions, from respiratory problems to neurological disorders to all manner of cancers.

Kate Hendricks Thomas was diagnosed with breast cancer after serving in the Marine Corps in Iraq and blamed burn pit exposure. “I had no idea when I left the service that I needed to be thinking about delayed-onset cancers and toxic exposures. It wasn’t something that was on my radar,” she recalled in a video posted by advocacy group Burn Pits 360 before her death in April. “I wish it had been.”

Wesley Black served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Vermont Army National Guard. “I still remember the oxygen being sucked from the air as burn pit smoke engulfed everything in its path,” he wrote in an op-ed in USA TODAY published last year. Black was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 31. He died in November.

Wesley Black in Brownsville, Vermont, in June 2016.
Wesley Black in Brownsville, Vermont, in June 2016.

VA still studying burn pit exposure

The VA says on its website that the agency is still “actively studying” burn pit exposure to “better understand potential long-term health effects.” McDonough, the VA secretary, said after the legislation stalled last week that "vets and survivors have already waited too long" and the department is poised to "deliver for veterans as soon as this bill is signed into law."

In the meantime, ailing veterans who believe exposure to toxic burn pits made them sick must prove the exposure caused their illnesses before receiving benefits. The process can take years, and it's a difficult link to prove. More than 70% of such claims are denied by the VA, the AP reported. The bill that passed Congress Tuesday would make coverage automatic for many.

Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of the late Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, hugs Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, after a procedural vote July 28 blocked passage of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics , or PACT Act. Her son-in-law died from cancer after exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq.
Susan Zeier, mother-in-law of the late Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, hugs Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, after a procedural vote July 28 blocked passage of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics , or PACT Act. Her son-in-law died from cancer after exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq.

“We need this bill to pass; it's not for my family,” Heath Robinson’s mother-in-law said in a video posted Sunday by David Hogg, co-founder of March for Our Lives. “There's nothing in it for us. I just want and what Heath wanted – we don't want to see any other families suffer like we did.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: PACT Act in Congress: Veterans to get benefits for burn pit exposure