A bipartisan bill unveiled Tuesday promises to help veterans suffering from toxic burn pit exposures in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, but some veterans' advocates say it doesn't go far enough.
The legislation is one part of a three-phase approach. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester unveiled the first piece with ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran. The initial bill would expand access and eligibility for veterans, including clinical screenings through the Department of Veterans Affairs and mandate toxic exposure education for VA health care personnel. It also would establish a one-year open enrollment period for veterans whose eligibility has expired.
"This landmark bill will allow us to connect a generation of burn pit veterans with the care they've earned, while moving the ball forward on addressing toxic exposure in the comprehensive way our veterans deserve," Tester said.
"I hadn't heard the word burn pit," said Cindy Aman, who was deployed to the Middle East in 2003 as a military police officer with missions in Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar. "I didn't even know what that meant. I knew that there was smoke everywhere and it smelled horrible."
It would be years before Aman understood what exposure to those pits would mean for her and the estimated 3.5 million other service members exposed to burn pits in post-9/11 overseas combat.
The pits were a primitive answer to get rid of heaps of garbage. The nonprofit Burn Pits 360 estimates the U.S. military burned around 227 metric tons of hazardous waste — including batteries, plastics, human waste, chemicals and more.
It's an issue personal to President Joe Biden, who has said he believes his late son Beau's terminal cancer was linked to toxic burn pit exposure while deployed to Iraq.
"I came back and I had some really weird symptoms," Aman said, saying she started coughing initially.
Fast forward years later, and Aman, who used to run every morning, noticed she had trouble breathing just walking up the stairs. She says nothing showed up on her tests.
"When you burn plastics, when you burn metals, when you do all these things and then you're inhaling them -- of course your body is not going to react like it's supposed to," Aman said.
Initially, the VA denied her request to get it checked out by a specialist in New York. After jumping through many hoops, Sen. Chris Coons' office helped her finally get the visit approved, where the doctor conducted a lung biopsy.
The results showed "constrictive bronchiolitis and all kinds of dust and metal particles embedded in my lung cells. It was all right there," Aman said.
The bipartisan bill unveiled Tuesday would direct the VA to include more screening measures for symptoms associated with exposures, which could have streamlined the process for Aman.
"There's a lot of veterans out there that need health care due to their exposure to toxins, in this case, burn pits. And we need to get their healthcare to them as soon as possible," Tester said.
John Feal, veterans' advocate, 9/11 first responder and president of the FealGood Foundation, doesn't think the legislation goes far enough.
"As you and I speak right now, somebody is dying from burn pits," Feal said. "You're putting a Band-Aid on an open sucking chest wound. That's a joke."
Feal joined the fight with comedian Jon Stewart, lobbying members of Congress to provide more coverage for exposed vets. Feal and other advocates want to see a full list of known conditions linked to burn pits covered, so veterans don't need to endure round after round of denials and appeals to get treatments taken care of.
"Don't put burden of proof on veteran or the widow to have to prove they're dying or died to exposure to toxic chemicals," said Burn Pits 360 co-founder and executive director Rosie Lopez Torres.
"While the story of 9/11 and the burn pit victims parallel each other, one was done by terrorists. The other one was done by our own federal government," Feal said. "No veteran should have to come home sick burning from the inside out and have to be his own doctor, advocate and lawyer."
Feal points to the PACT Act in the House, which he says is a much more comprehensive bill. Tester says they're in communication with House leaders on how to move forward.
"We're in contact with leadership over there and our staffs are in contact with their staffs," Tester said in a press conference. "They know what's going on. There are no surprises here on their side or ours. The goal here is to get this thing done by the end of this Congress."
Tester says he made a commitment to Sen. Moran that he wouldn't take the legislation to the Senate floor until they had bipartisan agreement, and this first step is part of that compromise, citing Republican concerns about the cost of the measure.
"I would have preferred personally to take the whole Cost of War Act and pass it through," Tester said in an interview with Newsy. "I get their frustration. But the bottom line is, we're going to work as hard and as fast as we can to get this bill done. We just had to break it up into three phases to get it done."
Tester says other lawmakers also have voiced concern about capacity at the VA.
"Getting presumptions in place that add significant numbers of new veterans to the list before the VA gets its act together in regard to its capability of dealing with those presumption cases disadvantages veterans who are already waiting in line for their for their benefit," Moran said.
For veterans like Aman, this is a first step to prevent others from going through what she did, but she hopes to see more.
"I wish it was moving faster," Aman said. "I wish it was more encompassing. And I'm grateful. I'm always grateful for every bill that's, you know, put together."
Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee will hold a markup on the proposal, when both Tester and Moran expect it to pass out of committee.
Tester says he hopes to get all three phases through the Senate this year.