U.S. Army combat veteran Mark Jackson paid a stiff price for his eight years of active service. His thyroid has stopped working, his blood is anemic and the 43-year-old has osteoporosis so severe that he's shrunk an inch-and-a-half.
The culprit, Jackson said, is toxic exposure to burn pits and chemical weapons while deployed to Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in southeastern Uzbekistan.
"My doctor says I have the bones of an 80-year old woman," Jackson said Tuesday as he joined with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, advocates and comedian Jon Stewart in Washington to urge passage of federal legislation that would streamline the process for veterans in obtaining benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for burn pit and other toxic exposures.
The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act would remove the burden on veterans to provide proof establishing a direct connection between exposure and their health condition.
"It's not just a health care crisis," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), noting the VA denies coverage for toxic exposure 80% of the time. "This a moral outrage. Everyone in this country should be outraged … This isn't just a failure of responsibility. It's a dereliction of our duty."
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military employed hundreds of open-air burn pits to dispose of garbage, medical waste, plastics, and other waste from military installations, advocates said. Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits that spewed toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air, according to the VA.
"If you come from war and have a physical wound and end up at Walter Reed Bethesda, you'll get world-class care," Stewart said. "But if you have a toxic wound … they don't know what to do with you. And you'll spend your time when you come back home basically as a defendant in a trial for your own health care and your own health."
In a statement, the VA highlighted its medical research of burn pit exposure and an online registry where veterans can document their exposure.
"VA continually looks at medical research and follows trends related to airborne hazards exposures," the agency said. "There are multiple ongoing and extensive studies by DoD and VA looking into airborne hazards exposures."
John Feal of Nesconset, a Ground Zero a demolition supervisor, said veterans are now suffering many of the same ailments as 9/11 first responders. The common link, Feal said, is the burning of jet fuel.
"Our stories parallel each other," said Feal, whose Feal Good Foundation worked with Stewart to expand eligibility for Sept. 11 first responders. "Their stories are so eerily similar. The same cancers. The same respiratory illnesses."