Biden pledges support to veterans exposed to burn pits

Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:31 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - In his State of the Union address, President Biden Tuesday pledged to push for better medical care and benefits for military members exposed to war-zone burn pits.

Lawmakers and soldiers from our region for years have called on the Defense Department to get help for local vets exposed to the pits during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are used to burn everything from medical waste to tires and trash. Many exposed to the toxic smoke later got sick, and some died. And new details WCAX just uncovered are that the pits are still burning. After months of inquiries, Defense Department officials admit there are seven of those pits in operation, but they won’t disclose further details, citing security.

“To see it as part of the State of the Union was breath-taking, overwhelming, and joyous,” said Elba Barr, a Vermont veteran. “Actually made us feel heard and validated.” Barr says she shed tears when the president urged Congress to do more to help sick veterans exposed to military burn pits.

“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best-trained warriors were never the same,” Biden said during Tuesday’s address.

Barr is one of them. She grew up in Vermont, enlisted, and did 13 combat missions during her military career, including a top-secret mission to help track Osama Bin Laden after 9-11. She was stabbed, shot, and wounded in explosions but survived. Then, a decade after Barr’s time at K-2, a military base in Uzbekistan used for classified missions in Afghanistan, she started getting sick. She still is and blames the burn pits. “I am just trying to live every day and every moment, present and joyous and creating memories with my friends and family,” Barr said.

Her list of ailments is long. The 43-year old mother of two has suffered cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, throat cancer, and a rare liver disease. Like many soldiers, she’s fought for Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department to recognize burn pits as the reason for their illnesses, but most claims have been denied. “To spend 20 years fighting for care and fighting for acknowledgment is exhausting when you are facing a terminal diagnosis,” Barr said. “The weight is off our shoulders now, so we can spend that time with the people we love, making memories, and will carry on our legacy.”

That’s because the president announced his administration is expanding eligibility to veterans suffering from nine respiratory cancers believed to be linked to burn pits. “To make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they deserve,” Biden said.

And new legislation being voted on this week would go even farther. The PACT Act, co-sponsored by Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vermont, expands coverage for toxic exposure to as many as 3.5 million vets and forces the VA to concede that burn pits make soldiers sick. “It’s overdue and it’s necessary,” Welch said. “Our obligation is to take care of the warrior after they served us so well.” Welch is optimistic it will pass the House and Senate and make it to the president for his signature.

“We still have a long ways to go,” said Barr. She says this is a major milestone in the battle over burn pits but that many cancers and other illnesses like hers still don’t qualify under the new legislation. But she says it’s validation for soldiers who fought for this recognition. Soldiers like Wes Black, a Vermonter who died last fall but won a first-of-its-kind legal battle over his burn pit exposure.

“I was happy for people like Wes Black, who suffered painfully,” Barr said. “And it’s all those thousands of vets who have died horrible deaths... their voices, their fight was acknowledged.”

The president also spoke of his late son who died of brain cancer. Beau Biden was a major in the Army Guard who deployed to Iraq and was near burn pits, too.

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