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After IAVA Advocacy, House-passed Defense Bill Includes Bipartisan Measures

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)—the leading post-9/11 veterans empowerment organization—applauded the U.S. House of Representatives for passing an annual national defense bill that features several bipartisan priorities the group has advocated for, including provisions to support veterans exposed to toxic “burn pits” and protect GI Bill education benefits for military spouses and children.

Now that the House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), IAVA encourages Congress to quickly reconcile the two defense bills and ensure both of these important priorities stay in the final legislation.

“Our national defense policies must reflect the realities and needs of servicemembers and veterans—that’s what IAVA goes to bat for each and every day,” said IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler. “We’re glad Congress has come this far, and thank House lawmakers for taking this important legislative step. We urge the House and Senate to continue working together in a bipartisan and pragmatic way as the process moves forward. We’ll be working hard to make sure that provisions IAVA has worked to include—that support millions of veterans who may have been exposed to toxic ‘burn pits’ while deployed and protect the transferability of education benefits to military spouses and children—don’t end up on the chopping block.”

Burn pits were a common way to get rid of garbage, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris at military sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, which released toxic fumes into the air. Three million men and women have been deployed overseas since the 9/11 attacks; during these deployments, many service members lived, worked, and exercised near burn pits. After returning home, many of these same servicemembers began developing health issues that may be tied to these toxic exposures. There are also other hazards beyond burn pits that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan that may also pose a danger for respiratory illnesses, including inhaled irritant gases, high levels of fine dust, heavy metals due to operations in urban environments, plus the potential impact to the respiratory system from the effects of explosives and the inhalation of depleted uranium used in munitions. The Pentagon has failed to track burn pit or airborne toxic exposures, and even now, a full list of burn pit sites is not publicly available.

The bipartisan Burn Pits Accountability Act—sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Brian Mast (R-FL)—directs the Pentagon to include in periodic health assessments an evaluation of whether a servicemember has been exposed to open burn pits or toxic airborne chemicals. If they report being exposed, they will be enrolled in the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry – unless they opt out. The VA estimates 3.5 million veterans are eligible for the registry, which tracks exposures to airborne toxins. However, because enrollment is voluntary, the registry is not well-known. It has only received 178,000 responses since going live in 2014. Encouragingly, the number enrolled has risen by more than 30,000 since IAVA launched its nationwide burn pit campaign in 2018.

The NDAA includes an important amendment – sponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) – allowing for service members with more than sixteen years of service to successfully transfer education benefits to eligible dependents. The amendment reforms a shortsighted policy change announced by the Department of Defense in July 2018, which would have limited transferability to service members with less than sixteen years of active duty service – and excluded service members who served for nearly the entirety of the War on Terror.

“In the years since 9/11, millions of my brothers and sisters in uniform were exposed to toxic burn pits during multiple deployments to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands have suffered terrible health effects, including some of the worst cancers, as a result. They have waited too long for our government to recognize this problem and make sure they get the care they need. Passing legislation that includes my bipartisan Burn Pits Accountability Act provides the first necessary step towards making sure no servicemember is left behind,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

“For too long, the federal government has sat quietly as thousands of servicemembers exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered terrible health effects at a young age,” Rep. Mast said. “But today we took a critical step in the right direction to combat what has become the Agent Orange of my generation. This is a big victory in our fight to ensure every servicemember has access to the care they need.”

“I’d like to thank IAVA for their strong advocacy in opposition to changes to Post-9/11 GI Bill transferability and the tens of thousands of supporters who signed a petition against the changes,” said Rep. Courtney. “I was proud to introduce an amendment to the NDAA, passed with unanimous bipartisan support, which would restrict the Secretary of Defense from blocking servicemembers with more than 16 years of service from transferring their earned education benefits to their family members. This amendment led directly to DOD’s decision to delay implementation of this new restriction, but the fight is not over. I look forward to continuing to work with IAVA to push for my amendment to become law so that this restriction is never implemented, and our longest-serving servicemembers can rest assured that they will maintain their ability to provide educational opportunities to their families.”

Support for injuries from burn pits and other toxic exposures is one of IAVA’s Big 6 Advocacy priorities for 2019, focused on the Post-9/11 generation of veterans, and veterans of all eras. More details are available on our Big 6 Advocacy Priorities and in the IAVA Policy Agenda.

Combat Suicide Among Troops and Veterans
Reform the VA for Today’s Veterans
Initiate Support for Injuries from Burn Bits
Defend Veteran and Military Education Benefits
Recognize and Improve Services for Women Veterans
Establish Support for Veterans who Want to Utilize Medical Cannabis

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