A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate that aims to finally help veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act” was introduced on Tuesday by senators Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and aims to create what they say is a ‘center of excellence” within the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Many of our brave men and women in uniform were exposed to harmful substances from toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have an obligation to care for them,” Tillis said in a statement.
Klobuchar shared Tillis’ sentiment.
“With an increasing number of our brave men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan citing illnesses potentially caused by burn pits exposure, it’s clear that we can’t afford to wait,” she said.
The issue of burn pits and their use on military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been referred to as “the new Agent Orange," as scores of soldiers returned home from the fight with a myriad of health issues—many of which proved lethal.
Civilian workers and private contractors are also suffering from cancer, respiratory problems and blood disorders and, like military victims, they say they are being ignored.
During the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits were used to get rid of waste and garbage generated on bases. Everything was incinerated in the pits, say soldiers, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant.
The incineration of the waste generated numerous toxins. Thousands of U.S. military personnel who served on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan inhaled dense black smoke from burn pits which were often positioned right next to their barracks and base.
Nearly 64,000 active service members and retirees have put their names on a Burn Pit Registry, but documenting their plight doesn't guarantee coverage.
“It’s a failed registry. It doesn’t work. It could take 20-30 years for someone to get assistance,” Joseph Hickman, author of the 2016 book “The Burn Pits: the Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” told FoxNews.com in April. “It’s not fair. They need help now.”
“The clouds of smoke would just hang throughout the base,” Army Sgt. Daniel Diaz, who was stationed at Joint Base Balad, in Iraq's Sunni Triangle from 2004-2005, told FoxNews.com last year. “No one ever gave it any thought. You are just so focused on the mission at hand. In my mind, I was just getting ready for the fight.”
Diaz returned from duty in 2008. A year later, he started developing health problems including cancer, chronic fatigue and weakness, neuropathy and hypothyroidism. Nearly every base he was stationed at during his four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan had burn pits nearby - and pungent smoke everywhere.
The new bill aims to help soldiers like Diaz by providing resources to the VA to give them the ability to better study the health effects caused by burn pit exposure and provide dedicated staff and resources to treat patients.
Still, victims' advocates fear the relief may not come in time to save men and women now suffering from the effects of burn pit exposure.
"We need a medical screening process in place now not in 20 years," said Rosie Torres, founder of Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group for service members who have fallen ill. "Our service men and women are dying now and many more will die by the time the center is implemented.”