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Senate passes Gillibrand-backed bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
Office of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

The U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to help millions of sick veterans who were exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits.

The bill would expand health and disability benefits to veterans and make the claims process easier.

“When we send our brave men and women all around the globe to protect our freedom, they deserve to be able to come back to the health care they need to survive, and their families deserve the benefits that they've earned when they pass," Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said at a news conference after the bill passed.

"This is a day of justice,” said Gillibrand, who's been working to pass legislation on the issue for years.

Massive, open-air burn pits were used overseas at military bases to get rid of trash — everything from human and medical waste to chemicals and plastics would be thrown into the pit and set ablaze with jet fuel. Some veterans who inhaled the fumes have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied most of their claims.

"Instead of the VA helping them and saying, 'you were injured in the course of war, we're going to help you,' the VA threw all kinds of obstacles," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said. "And now that's all going to change."

The bill would create a presumption of service connection for 23 diseases related to toxic exposure, and expand the VA workforce to handle an influx of expected claims.

“Inside, I’m smiling for the 3.5 million veterans who are going to get help," said John Feal of the Long Island-based FealGood Foundation. After he successfully lobbied Congress to extend health benefits for victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, he shifted his advocacy to burn pit legislation.

The bill comes with a pricetag of over $275 billion. Gillibrand said paying benefits to sick veterans is the cost of war.

The bill now goes back to the House, where it's expected to pass next week.

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.