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Pressure Builds On VA To Help Vets Exposed To Toxic Fumes Overseas

Sgt. Robert B. Brown with Regimental Combat Team 6 watches over the civilian firefighters at a burn pit in Fallujah, Iraq, on May 25, 2007. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Cpl. Samuel D. Corum
/
Defense Visual Information Distribution Service
Sgt. Robert B. Brown with Regimental Combat Team 6 watches over the civilian firefighters at a burn pit in Fallujah, Iraq, on May 25, 2007. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Retired Army Sgt. Rigoberto Rosario remembers black smoke that hung so thick in the air he couldn’t always tell if it was day or night.

“Picture yourself being buried alive and there’s no breathing — that’s the only way I can put it,” Rosario said. “Darkness in the daytime.”

Rosario served in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, next to burning oil fields, during sandstorms and near burn pits – giant outdoor holes in the ground where the military got rid of trash. Everything from plastic to electronics to human waste would get doused in jet fuel and incinerated.

Retired Army Sgt. Rigoberto Rosario from Long Island, N.Y., says he takes three medications to treat severe asthma from breathing toxic fumes while he was deployed overseas.
Credit Desiree D'Iorio
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Retired Army Sgt. Rigoberto Rosario from Long Island, N.Y., says he takes three medications to treat severe asthma from breathing toxic fumes while he was deployed overseas.

Rosario said that’s why he has to take three medications just to help him breathe. His asthma is so severe that one flight of stairs can leave him winded.

“I have an inhaler in my car, I have an inhaler in my bookbag, I have an inhaler at home, I have two or three inhalers at work on different floors — just in case,” he said.

At a park near his Long Island home outside New York City, Rosario describes a different war he’s been fighting for more than 25 years: trying to prove to the VA that his breathing problems are due to toxic exposures during his deployments.

More than three million military service members who served overseas since the 1990s were exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits. Some are now sick with respiratory illnesses and other diseases, and they're fighting for health and disability benefits from the VA.

“[The VA] had sent me to this office, that office, oh I need a record for this, oh you need proof of this and proof for that — it was a merry-go-round,” Rosario said about gathering evidence connected to his deployments and health conditions.

The VA routinely denies disability claims from veterans like Rosario, who say burn pits and other environmental hazards made them sick. It's difficult for individual veterans to prove the exposure caused their health problems, and in most cases the VA doesn't consider exposure a service-related condition.

Veterans advocates say the government should automatically recognize burn pits and other toxic exposures as a health danger, and should presumptively grant benefits to anyone who was exposed in the past and is sick now — before it’s too late.

“Something needs to be done now because as history has shown us, if you wait too long you’re going to lose more veterans than you’re ever able to cover,” said Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans. The group helps disabled veterans get access to VA benefits.

Liermann said many Vietnam War veterans had to wait decades before they received benefits for diseases linked to the defoliant Agent Orange. Now, he’s lobbying Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to make it easier for veterans to prove their illnesses are caused by what they breathed while they were deployed.

Among those spearheading the effort is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who introduced a bill this year to streamline the claims process and remove the burden of proof for sick veterans.

“No one should have to spend years fighting for their lives, jumping through hoops, hiring doctors, hiring lawyers, paying for experts,” Gillibrand said at an April news conference. “It's not their job — they did their job; they served our country.”

She was joined by comedian-turned-activist Jon Stewart.

“For those that have fought and defended and served this country, for them to come home and have to fight against the very government that they volunteered to defend is immoral,” Stewart said.

By his side was Long Island activist John Feal. The pair gained widespread attention in 2019 as they lobbied Congress to make the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund permanent. After that victory, they shifted their focus to the toxic exposure issue.

The VA declined an interview request, but said officials would meet with Congress in the next few weeks to discuss burn pits. The VA has said there’s not enough evidence to link long term health problems to toxic exposures. At a May congressional hearing, VA deputy secretary Ronald Burke said the issue is a top priority, but the agency needs more data.

“In order to do a better job researching exposure to toxic substances and military environmental hazards, we need more insight into the health issues that veterans are experiencing,” Burke said, adding the agency is conducting its own review and plans to announce new policies this year. He admitted the claims process has fallen short.

“Our research indicates that an overly cumbersome process and an assumption of denial discourages veterans from filing toxic and environmental exposure related claims,” Burke said.

Rigoberto Rosario just wants the VA to recognize that his asthma is related to his service. At 62, he said he needs the stability of knowing that he can qualify for disability benefits.

“I’m not saying give me a million dollars,” he said. “I mean, we did our job. Help us.”

Rosario said he wouldn’t hesitate to put on his uniform again if asked, but he wants to know the government has his back, too.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.