Season 1
Episode 1

Burn pits were standard military practice during the wars we waged in the Middle East and now tens of thousands of our veterans are suffering from respiratory diseases, cancers, and other illnesses caused by exposure to the toxic black smoke the pits emitted. That is awful enough, but the Department of Veterans Affairs was also routinely refusing to acknowledge that these illnesses were connected to veterans’ service and was denying them benefits.

Scroll down to learn more about how the veterans we had on our episode and other advocacy groups worked tirelessly to pass legislation that expands access to care for veterans exposed to toxins during service.

The government kinda actually worked!

As we covered in our episode, the burden of proof typically fell on veterans to show the VA that their condition was connected to their service. Weirdly, the VA’s own legal standard for approving disability claims says that the veteran should always get the benefit of the doubt, but that is not what was happening in practice. The VA instead was denying more than 70% of the claims related to toxic exposure.

Congress goes big

After our episode aired, many veterans' service organizations to lobby very hard on Capitol Hill. In 2021, Sen. Tester (D-MT) introduced The Cost of War Act, and a companion bill was introduced in the House, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), called Honoring Our PACT Act of 2021. Jon became a vocal advocate for passing this legislation because it took the burden off the vets and established a path for handling any toxic exposures that occurs in future wars.

This is also a deeply personal cause for President Biden, who believes his son Beau’s brain cancer may have been caused by burn pit exposure during his service in Iraq. His commitment to the issue was clearly demonstrated when he devoted several minutes of his State of the Union address to discuss our duty to care for veterans who were exposed to burn pits.

People over political games

After initially passing both the House and the Senate in the spring of 2022, the Honoring Our PACT Act ran into a small procedural hiccup and had to return to the House for another vote. It made its way back to the Senate, where a group of Republicans who had previously supported it suddenly flipped their votes and claimed there was a "budgetary gimmick" introduced by Democrats. As Jon pointed out in numerous interviews, there was nothing added. (Only one sentence had been removed related to the procedural issue.)

Finally, after a ton of pressure from veterans and their advocates — who literally camped out outside the Capitol until the Senate agreed to vote on it again — the Honoring Our PACT Act was passed on August 2, 2022, in a vote of 86-11.

The sweeping legislation establishes presumption for more than 20 diseases that are linked to burn pit exposure. This is a huge victory for everyone who has been fighting so hard for so long to get burn pit victims the support and health care they deserve.