From left, Army veteran Patrick Donohue, Suffolk County Executive Steve...

From left, Army veteran Patrick Donohue, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer on Wednesday in Islip to urge Congress to pass a bill designed to help vets exposed to burn pit toxins while serving overseas. Credit: James Carbone

Patrick Donohue, an advocate for Long Island veterans, vividly recalls the open air burn pits while serving in the Army's 101st Airborne Division in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan.

The football-field-size pits were used to burn everything from human and medical waste to plastic water bottles, which emitted toxic fumes breathed in by soldiers, he said.

Donohue, who now runs Project 9 Line, an Islip organization that helps transition Long Island veterans back into civilian life, was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. But it would take six difficult years for Donohue to prove to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that his tumor was linked to the burn pits.

On Wednesday, Donohue joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as well as area elected leaders and veterans to urge passage of the Honoring Our PACT Act.

The bill would extend benefits to service members who have cancer and 22 other severe illnesses linked to burn pits, airborne pollution, Agent Orange and other toxins. The measure would also reform how the department determines who suffered exposure to pollutants while in the military.

"This will remove that hurdle for all veterans that have these diagnoses," Donohue said, "and make it possible for them to receive service connection health care and compensation for their disability."

Currently, the burden of proof is on veterans to prove their condition is directly caused by toxic exposure, and only 30% of disability claims that cite burn pits have been approved by the VA, records show.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday spoke about burn pits with toxins that veterans were exposed to in Iraq and Afghanistan, announcing his push for the VA to expand its coverage for those suffering. Credit: James Carbone

Schumer, speaking in front of Project 9 Line's offices, vowed to bring the bill to the floor after the Senate returns from recess. The bill passed the House this year with bipartisan support.

"There is significant evidence demonstrating the link between the exposure to burn pits and the health conditions our veterans face," Schumer said. "Toxins in burn pits' smoke have long-term effects on the ability to breathe. They cause cancer. They cause severe damage to internal organs. But when our veterans come and say 'I have these things and here's proof I was exposed to a burn pit in Iraq and Afghanistan' the VA says 'you have to prove the disease was caused by this and not something else.' "

"That's an outrage," Schumer said.

Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits, according to the VA.

Department spokesman Terrence Hayes declined to comment on pending legislation but encouraged "veterans who believe they are suffering from injuries and ailments because of their service to immediately file a claim.”

The bill is named for Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, an Army medic in the Ohio National Guard who died in 2020 at age 39 from a rare form of cancer caused by toxic exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq. President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address last month, told Robinson's story, and comedian Jon Stewart has also recently advocated for the bill's passage.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, an Army veteran who did not serve overseas, said members of the military had no choice but to follow orders, including managing the burn pits.

"The reality is hundreds of thousands of veterans have been exposed to toxins and chemicals and burn pits and these other environmental harmful agents," said Bellone, who attended the news conference. "We have an obligation to give them the health care that they need. No questions asked."

Victor Bohm, senior director of digital engagement for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the bill must be passed without delay.

"Veterans that have been exposed are now sick," he said, "and cannot wait any longer for the health care and benefits they have earned through their service."


 

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