RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As Veterans Day approaches, the Department of Veterans Affairs is cutting hurdles for veteran claims. Some veterans who have alleged for years that they were exposed to toxic matter while serving in the Gulf, can finally get disability benefits.
The VA is now processing disability claims for asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis related to certain toxic exposures. Still, some believe the VA and Congress needs to pass legislation that could do more.
Servicemen and servicewomen serving in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have long claimed toxins spread in the air from dust storms and sandstorms and burn pits made them sick. Burn pits are common way to get rid of military waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Master Sergeant Brian Graves who flew missions over the Middle East for the U.S Air Force is one of those veterans.
“I was subjected to a lot, a lot, a lot of jet fuel exhaust,” he said in a video shared with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He said he lives with breathing problems and illness.
“I kept getting bronchitis over and over again,” Graves said.
According to a burn pit registry created by the VA back in 2014, over 200,000 Vets said exposure to airborne hazards made them ill. Yet, up until now the Department denied assistance to many of them.
With the expanded benefit, claims are now happening.
“We have already paid over 4,000 claims, millions of dollars to veterans who are eligible on this new basis,” said Beth Murphy, executive director of compensation services for the VA.
The claims are not limited to burn pit exposure.
She said “this is even broader than that, we are not requiring folks to specify what they may have been exposed to. If you know you have asthma, sinusitis or rhinitis certainly please file a claim or if you have been denied in the past please reapply with a supplemental claim.”
“We’ve made it too hard for them to prove what they were exposed to, when, how long,” said U.S. Representative Elaine Luria from Virginia’s 2nd district.
She says these changes are a good first step. However, she’s focused on the “Honoring our PACT Act” to give more veterans like Graves an opportunity to file a claim.
She said, “It also includes 23 different medical conditions, so it widely broadens the scope of those conditions.”
8News asked Murphy why it took the VA so long to recognize the impact of the environmental hazards like burning trash on military members. We’re told there’s been a history at the VA of waiting for the results of studies and research before moving forward.
Although, now VA Secretary Denis McDonough — who just took over in February — and Congress appear to be signaling a policy change and a willingness to help veterans while additional data is still pending.
Murphy said, “Secretary McDonough is really leaning in, he wants to make it easier for folks to have access to benefits and healthcare.”
Some of these exposures date back to 1990 for veterans deployed to the Southwest Asia Theater of Operations. The policy has the potential to impact 3.5 million veterans. To file a claim visit the VA’s website at www.va.gov.