(Tribune News Service) — Like many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Thomas U. Kim noticed something different about his health when he returned from overseas.
“I never had allergies or allergy-like symptoms until I came back from my 2006 deployment,” said Kim, a former Army Reserve officer who served three deployments in Iraq and who is now the president and CEO of the Community Action Organization of Western New York.
But then again, before his deployments to Iraq, Kim hadn’t been exposed to the pungent toxic fumes emanating from “burn pits” where troops burned anything and everything they didn’t need — fuel, furniture, metals, plastics, anything.
And while he worries that his symptoms may eventually evolve into something much more serious, for now, he’s lucky.
“There are many veterans who had much worse symptoms, from upper respiratory problems to cancer,” he said.
Kim is one of 3.5 million veterans who, by the government’s own accounting, have been exposed to fumes from burn pits since the 1991 Gulf War.
Thankfully for Kim and millions of other veterans, Congress is on the cusp of finally doing something about the damage done by burn pit smoke and other toxins that they were exposed to while serving their country.
The Senate last month overwhelmingly passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which adds 23 respiratory illnesses and cancers to the list of conditions that are considered service-connected — meaning vets exposed to them can automatically get VA health care and disability benefits. And despite a parliamentary glitch, both houses of Congress are expected to approve the measure later this summer.
Kim is one of many veterans who’s happy about that.
“It’s very close to my heart, as well as the guys that I served with, many who have perished,” said Kim, 55, whose son was an active duty Army officer and whose daughter now serves in the Air Force.
Veterans groups say that without the PACT Act in place, the VA has been denying 80% of the claims it gets for disability benefits connected to burn pit smoke and other toxins. But once Congress passes the bill, the number of claims approved is likely to skyrocket.
And that’s good news to New York’s two U.S. senators, who have been pushing for expanding benefits for burn pit victims for years.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, has been among the most public advocates on the issue, appearing on occasion with comedian Jon Stewart to push for the bill’s passage.
“Our service members and their families give everything for our country, and as a nation we promise to care for them when they come home,” she said after the Senate passed the bill in an 84-14 vote. “At last, we are honoring that promise and paying the price we owe them for our freedoms, our values and our safety.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, also a Democrat, agreed.
“Thousands of upstate New York veterans, and over 3.5 million vets across America, have been exposed to toxins from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan in the line of duty, and for too long, bureaucratic rules have denied them treatment for cancers, respiratory diseases and the countless other illnesses incurred while fighting for our freedom,” Schumer said.
And it’s not just veterans who were exposed to burn pits who will benefit from the bill. The measure also expands disability coverage for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant. Vets exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam have long been eligible for disability coverage, but the PACT Act expands eligibility to veterans who served in other places where the U.S. military used the defoliant, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam and American Samoa.
“Some of these veterans service organizations, they’ve been working on this since Vietnam,” Stewart said at a Capitol Hill press conference earlier this year. “The learning curve of this country over how we treat our veterans when they come home from war is so painfully slow. The pace is unacceptable.”
As if to prove Stewart’s point, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted that parliamentary glitch soon after the Senate passed the bill. The Senate legislation includes a narrow tax provision, one that would offer a tax break to health care professionals who agree to work at a rural VA facility — but under the Constitution, tax provisions cannot originate in the Senate.
“This is the constitutional responsibility of the House to initiate these,” Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters. “So we’re trying to fix that. And as soon as we can get it fixed, we want to pass it.”
Veterans advocates aren’t worried that the glitch will stall the bill for long.
“If you’ve been following along, you’re probably a little confused and asking yourself: weren’t we like a day away from the president signing this bill? And the answer is yes — but,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a recent Facebook Live discussion of the bill.
Opposition to the bill is minimal, said Tom Porter, the veterans group’s executive vice president and man on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, voiced concerns about the bill’s cost, saying in a statement: “The Department of Veterans Affairs already has the authority to ensure veterans receive this care where the evidence has established a connection to their service. Instead, the PACT Act goes far beyond, substituting Congress’ political judgment in place of available evidence and including unnecessary changes to longstanding budget rules to enable hundreds of billions in additional spending on unrelated purposes.”
But Porter said he expects Congress to correct the legislative glitch and pass the legislation soon after it returns this week from its two-week Independence Day break. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, backs the bill, as do the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees.
“We have so much momentum on this legislation,” Porter said.
Kim is happy to hear that.
“We stood by the nation when we were asked to go,” he said. “So the nation should at least stand by us.”
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