In 2006, I deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, and returned in early 2007. Within a month, I started getting sick with persistent chronic bronchitis that would come and go, even when I felt healthy. In 2010, after two and a half years of tests and doctors’ visits, the VA determined that I’d suffered permanent damage to my small airways as a result of “whatever you were exposed to over there.” (That’s a direct quote from my then-VA pulmonologist, and I’ll never forget it.) In 2017, I first heard about the Burn Pit issue and realized that my illness, which had grown significantly worse over the years, was likely due to this toxic exposure. From 2018 to 2019, I battled the VA for 15 months and chronicled it in a series of Townhall columns entitled Broken Promises. In 2019, I appeared on Fox News on Dana Perino’s The Daily Briefing to discuss my battle with the VA and this issue overall. In 2020, I appeared on the Fox News Rundown podcast, interviewed once again by Dana Perino, to discuss new legislation introduced a few weeks ago, which I’ll explain in more detail. Finally, as I write this – and here’s the real point of this column – NOTHING has officially been passed by congress after all these years to address the VA’s failure to recognize lung-related and other illnesses – including various types of cancers – sustained from toxic exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards while deployed overseas.
Unfortunately, I’m a cynic, and I have little hope that our so-called betters in congress can actually accomplish anything. This is 2020, after all, and the most divisive election in US history is only weeks away. Every issue is hyper-politicized, every tweet a new crisis, and every reaction an apocalypse-level event. But some have tried to help, ironically, politicians that I, as a conservative, would normally disagree with on day-to-day issues.
A few weeks ago, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA-36) introduced The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020, which is the first substantive piece of legislation that would address the criminal-like behavior of the VA, specifically, denying 80% of veterans’ claims for burn-pit-related illnesses. This legislation would instead remove the VA’s ability to deny these claims and presume a service connection, guaranteeing disability coverage and care. There have been other bills introduced, but none of them, including one proposed by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) last year, guarantee our vets are covered, and even worse, leave it to the VA to have the final determination. But this time may be different.
At the news conference introducing the bill were Jon Stewart, The FealGood Foundation, Burn Pits 360, the Grunt Style clothing and apparel company, Senator Gillibrand, Representative Ruiz, other veteran organizations, and widows of veterans who had already died from burn-pit-related illnesses. There has been an outpouring of support for this bill, but it continues to face an uphill battle. Since Senator Gillibrand’s office introduced the bill, they’ve repeatedly attempted to obtain a republican co-sponsor, with no success. The first question asked by every republican is, “How much will it cost?” The answer is simple: billions, yet the Congressional Budget Office won’t have an estimate for at least nine months. As a result, multiple prominent GOP senators have said no, and I even privately messaged one who followed me on social media, only to get no response. It seems that partisanship poisons even non-political issues like taking care of our veterans, and it infuriates and sickens me, as I feel like I’ve been screaming into a void for years, the only sound the echo of my own pleas for help from our elected leaders who profess they want to help but always find a reason not to.
Jon Stewart said it best in the press conference: “This is about money. We always have money for wars, but we never have money to take care of the war fighter.” There are some things that are worth doing because they are the right thing to do. Passing this bill to take care of our veterans is one of those things, but somehow, personal politics always derails progress. It is a sad state of affairs in this political day and age, and it should not be so. It should not be this hard for a republican senator to have the courage and integrity to cross the aisle in support of a righteous cause like caring for our nation’s veterans. It is the responsibility of these senators to do whatever is needed to support the war fighters, both abroad and home.
If you’re reading this article, I strongly urge you to call or write your senators or representatives and tell them to get behind this bill. While our politicians resist real progress because of partisanship and pressure, maybe, if enough of us send a message, they’ll stop all of the political infighting for the briefest of moments, hear our voices, recognize the value of this legislation, honor their responsibilities as sworn leaders, and do the right thing. All we can do is hope, which is not how it’s supposed to be.
Matthew Betley is a former Marine officer, a recovering alcoholic, an advocate for victims of toxic exposure to Burn Pits, and a geopolitical action thriller author of multiple novels. His Logan West series from Simon & Schuster is available wherever books are sold, and he currently has a new standalone project in the works in both publishing and Hollywood. Follow him mainly on Twitter at @MatthewBetley or find him on Facebook or Instagram.