Toxic-exposed veterans have kept their end of the bargain – now it’s our turn

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Over the past 20 years, our country has recruited, trained, equipped and deployed more than 3 million military personnel around the world. During that time, we spent $6.4 trillion on weapons and emergency operations while sending military personnel into harm’s way. But so far, Congress has yet to address and recognize that the loss of life and financial cost incurred during this time was only part of the true cost of the war. America’s message to service members and veterans exposed to toxic substances has been simple – we thank you for your service, but the price to pay to remedy your exposure is simply too high.

We promised our soldiers that we would take care of them when they returned. But when millions of service members were exposed to toxic substances and fell ill, they learned that they did not have access to the care and benefits to which they were entitled. For too long, Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have been slow to act on toxic exposure, citing high costs or a lack of absolute scientific evidence. The result – a broken promise and a cumbersome disability benefit application process that places the burden on veterans to prove toxic exposure. the Honoring our PACT law can change that.

Recently, I asked veterans exposed to toxic substances to share their experiences with Congress. The feedback has been overwhelming – over 900 responses in three weeks from veterans in 49 states. I have heard heartbreaking stories from veterans of how toxic exposures can overwhelm the senses. Veterans described feeling “like a nuisance to the VA healthcare system” while trying to rightfully claim the care they had been promised. I heard a shocked grieving widow she “should have to bury[her]22-year-old husband due to his exposure to hazardous conditions while serving his country.

My bipartisan bill finally provides access to VA health care to more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxic substances. This would require VA to presume veterans were exposed to toxic substances, rather than forcing veterans to prove it themselves. It makes crucial improvements to streamline the VA review process, so Congress doesn’t have to intervene. With support from veterans service organizations, advocates Jon Stewart and John Feal, and more 70 co-sponsorsthis legislation has momentum – Congress just needs to find the will to do the right thing.

Cries of “offsets” and “pay fors” didn’t stop Congress from passing a $1.9 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy in 2017. We know Congress is ready find money whenever he wants, as he demonstrated by adding $25 billion on top of the president’s request to the latest National Defense Authorization. Some of my colleagues seem reluctant to foot the bill for veterans exposed to toxic substances, but just as the military was sworn to protect and defend our nation, we made a promise. We don’t hesitate to fund the Department of Defense, and we shouldn’t try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the check for veterans exposed to toxic substances. We cannot waive our responsibility due to the shock perceived by the sticker.

Vietnam veterans have waited more than 40 years for the benefits of Agent Orange exposure due to piecemeal Congressional solutions. We cannot accept half-measures that restrict some veterans’ benefits and completely exclude others. Our service members and veterans have waited too long to simply watch Congress back away from the promise of comprehensive toxic exposure legislation in favor of a limited extension of benefits.

Toxic-exposed veterans have kept their end of the bargain — they deserve more than “thank you” and patriotic displays on Veterans Day — they deserve our action. We promised to put in place comprehensive legislation on exposure to toxic substances, and I intend to keep that promise.

Marc TakanoMark Allan TakanoThis week: Democrats set to clash over voting rights, filibuster Key House speaker wants to lead official trip to Taiwan in January Biden signs four bills to help veterans MORE is chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

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