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Connecticut veterans plan for next steps after Congress passes burn pits law

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Office of Senator Richard Blumenthal

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sat down with veterans on Tuesday to discuss a new law that will help service members who were exposed to dangerous toxins during their service.

The Senate passed sweeping legislation this month that will help veterans who became sick after breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits overseas. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will automatically presume that lung cancer and other diseases were caused by the fumes from burning trash.

Blumenthal, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said the presumption that certain illnesses are service-connected will make it easier for qualifying veterans to get healthcare and disability compensation by removing the burden of proving the connection.

“The next step is to implement and enforce it in a way that opens the doors to veterans and makes it as widely available as possible,” Blumenthal said at a roundtable meeting with veteran service organizations and state officials.

The bill also expands benefits for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and uranium at the K2 air base in Uzbekistan.

"The key here is going to be outreach," said Connecticut VA commissioner Thomas Saadi. "So that our veterans in Connecticut who were previously denied, or failed to file because they thought they would just be denied or delayed in receiving their benefits, now know they can file.”

Members of the Connecticut American Legion praised the bill, but said they’re concerned about whether the VA is ready for an influx of claims, citing backlogs and long delays from before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns created further bottlenecks. Up to 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits.

President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law Wednesday. Long Island activist John Feal, comedian Jon Stewart, and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) had pushed for passage of the bill for years.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.