News10NBC Investigates: New legislation introduced to help veterans impacted by burn pits

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — There is growing, bipartisan support in Washington for new legislation that would make it easier for veterans with diseases linked to burn pits to access Veterans Affairs benefits.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D, NY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R, FL) are sponsoring the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which would no longer require veterans to establish a direct service connection between their health condition and exposure in order to receive care. Instead, the veteran would only need to suffer from a qualifying health condition and provide documentation that he or she served in the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War.

The U.S. military regularly used burn pits at overseas bases to dispose of waste. Everything from electronics to human and medical waste to old vehicles were thrown into the pits and then lit on fire, in some cases with jet fuel. Back in November, News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke started looking into the health effects those pits had on the men and women who lived on the bases, many of whom said the smoke released chemicals have linked to cancers and respiratory illnesses.

“When I was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 we were probably not quite a football field away and depending on which direction the wind would blow, you would smell it, our uniforms would smell like that smoke, there would be times where you couldn’t see five feet in front of you because of the smoke,” recalls Joe Chenelly, a Fairport native who now serves as the Executive Director of AMVETS.

The Department of Defense estimates that 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits and while the VA admits there were toxins in the smoke, it has maintained that most of the health effects should have been temporary.

Senators Gillibrand and Rubio, along with Comedian and Advocate Jon Stewart and dozens of family members who believe their loved ones were lost as a direct result of the burn pit exposure announced the new legislation at a press conference in Washington on Tuesday.

“You can’t support the troops and then abandon them when the troops need help… you spend your time, you come back home basically as a defendant in a trial for your own healthcare,” Stewart said.

“Eight out of 10 times they (veterans) are denied that coverage. It’s not just a healthcare crisis, this is a moral outrage. Everyone in this country should be outraged as if it happened to your father or mother or sister or a brother,” an impassioned Sen. Gillibrand added.

The legislation essentially removes the burden of proof for the veteran and would only require that he or she submit documentation proving service during one of the wars and documentation proving he or she suffers from a qualifying health condition.

“For those who say it is too expensive, you’ve got to be kidding me… this is the cost of war, this is what it costs,” Sen. Gillibrand said.

For veterans like Chenelly, “I think it’s long overdue,” he said.

Chenelly also warned that if passed, the legislation would likely create a backlog for the VA that could impact all veterans.

“I do anticipate it’ll probably take two years for the VA to really be able to turn things around and catch up on what will become a major influx in claims,” Chenelly said.