Veterans Exposed to Toxic Burn Pits While in Afghanistan and Elsewhere Could Soon Get the Help They Need

A burn pit at a US base. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Kyle Kaminski

June 23, 2022

All federal lawmakers from Michigan—minus three Republicans—voted to support legislation that makes it easier for vets to receive medical care for respiratory problems. 

Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the story “Vets Exposed to Burn Pits in Afghanistan and Other Fronts Finally Get Recognition of Service-Related Health Issues” by Pat Kreitlow, which was originally published last week in The ‘Gander’s sister publication in Wisconsin, UpNorthNews.

WASHINGTON, DC—The US Senate gave final approval last week to legislation that will remove a bureaucratic barrier for veterans seeking care for respiratory problems likely caused by exposure to burn pits while serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.  

The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act overcame an important procedural vote on June 15 with 76 votes, more than enough to overcome any filibuster and receive a final vote that will send it to President Joe Biden for his signature. Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow were among the 85 lawmakers who supported the final vote to pass the bill; 14 Republican senators voted against the legislation. 

“When veterans are exposed to harmful substances in service to our nation, we must ensure they receive the VA benefits and medical care that they’ve earned,” Peters said in a release. “It’s simply unacceptable that veterans have faced years and even decades of inaction to get this necessary care. I was proud to help pass this bipartisan package, which will finally ensure all veterans in Michigan and across the country can obtain their long-overdue health care benefits.”

The PACT Act will establish a presumption that factors during a veteran’s service are connected to 23 different respiratory illnesses and cancers related to the smoke from burn pits—which were heavily used in war zones to dispose of household and human waste and toxic substances like paint and metals. The bill expands healthcare coverage for more than 3.5 million veterans.

As many as 15,000 service members who were deployed to Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (or K2) in Uzbekistan in the early 2000s were exposed to multiple cancer-causing chemicals and radiological hazards from pits used to burn all manner of material absent standard landfills. 

An Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked US armored military vehicles as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at a military base south of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2011. Congressional bargainers have announced a deal on legislation to boost health care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Simon Klingert, File)

Lawmakers said the recently approved legislation also invests in research to improve medical treatments and better understand the links between burn pit exposure and subsequent illness.

The amended bill still needs a final vote in the US House, where it previously passed on a bipartisan 256-174 vote—with 34 Republicans joining Democrats in approval. Three of Michigan’s seven Republican representatives—Tim Walberg, John Moolenaar, and Bill Huizenga—voted against helping veterans during the initial vote. It’s still expected to pass without their support.

Biden has said he believes exposure to burn pits may have contributed to the brain cancer that claimed the life of his son Beau. Former late-night host Jon Stewart has also been an aggressive champion of the bill. CBS News profiled a US Marine veteran, Kate Hendricks Thompson, last November about her three-year battle with the Veterans Administration over her claims for the breast cancer she believes was caused by exposure to burns pits in Iraq. Thompson died in April.

The legislation was supported by several major veterans’ organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Wounded Warrior Project, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and dozens more across the state of Michigan.

Colleagues from the 3rd Platoon look at the fire of burning trash. (Photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli for the Washington Post via Getty)

Peters also introduced recent bipartisan legislation to protect veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during their service. The Burn Pits Accountability Act would require that service members be assessed for exposure to open toxic burn pits as part of their routine health exams, as this exposure has been known to lead to cancer, cardiovascular toxicity, reproductive issues, and neurological damage for numerous Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans. 

In March, the House also approved the Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act, which was proposed by US Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and designed to provide vets with specialized care—and formally recognize that the burn pits created health hazards for service members. 


  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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