1. News
  2. /
  3. Military

Bilirakis introduces bill to get VA coverage for veterans exposed to burn pits

A number of veterans have been locked out of VA medical care and disability benefits for illnesses that often are terminal.
A bulldozer dumps a load of trash into a burn pit 300 yards from the runway at Afghanistan's Bagram Airfield in this 2012 photo. The Pentagon later built a trash disposal plant at the busy military base but a number of crude burn pits, still spewing toxic fumes, remain in operation. [Mark Rankin] [HOWARD ALTMAN | Mark Rankin]
Published Aug. 29
Updated Aug. 29

TARPON SPRINGS — After years of research and community input, a bill has been introduced in Congress to provide immediate medical care and benefits for veterans battling illnesses from exposure to toxic-waste burn pits.

In Tarpon Springs this week, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis unveiled the bipartisan “Protection for Veterans’ Burn Pit Exposure Act," creating the presumption that certain medical conditions can be traced to the burn pits in people who were exposed to them.

That’s not the current position of the Department of Veteran Affairs states, which contends that “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits."

As a result, a number of veterans have been locked out of VA medical care and disability benefits for illnesses that often are terminal.

Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, proposes in his bill allowing the VA to consider new studies connecting exposure and illnesses, conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

“It’s the least we can do for our heroes,” Bilirakis said at a news conference Tuesday.

In 2011, the academies studied the long-term health effects of exposure to burn pits — the military’s crude, low-tech method for disposing of trash in war zones — but were unable to develop firm conclusions because of insufficient evidence.

Two years later, under a congressional order, the VA created a national registry for veterans who were exposed to the burn pits.

Local Navy veteran Lauren Price, who suffers from a terminal lung disease from her exposure to burn pits overseas, said the registry hasn’t produced any major results yet.

“It’s this gaping hole in cyberspace,” Price said. “All this data goes in, and like all black holes, nothing comes out”

What’s more, a 2017 analysis of the registry by the national academies found flaws in how and what the VA was collecting.

The Department of Defense, in a letter to Congress earlier this year, noted that the pits can emit harmful smoke and flumes but defended their continued use at temporary sites where they’re the only acceptable alternative. The department said longer term, safer alternatives would be expensive.

RELATED STORY: Pinellas Congressman Gus Bilirakis seeks videos from veterans suffering from burn pit exposure

Meanwhile, veterans like Andrew Brewer, who served in the Indiana National Guard, struggle with daily life because of respiratory problems he traces to inhaling smoke from burn pits in 2009.

Brewer, 31, said that a civilian doctor in 2015 gave him about 15 more years to live.

“I knew what I signed up for but I didn’t realize I had signed up for this,” he said.

Bilirakis said he hopes the new bill, similar to a bill that died in the last session of Congress, can bring meaningful change without the agonizing delays suffered by Vietnam veterans exposed to herbicides like Agent Orange.

It wasn’t until June this year that President Donald Trump signed a law granting presumptive benefits to Navy veterans from the Vietnam War, four decades after the conflict ended.

The VA had refused to grant service-related benefits to these so-called “blue water” veterans because of disputes over their level of exposure to toxic chemicals in the waters of Vietnam.

And still, these veterans must wait a year for their benefits requests to be processed.

Said Bilirakis, “Burn pit toxic exposure is the agent orange of this generation."


  1. Maintainers prepare KC-135s refueling planes to be evacuated from MacDill Air Force Base in August. A new study predicts MacDill and other Florida bases will experience a sharp rise in the number of days when the heat index tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making it unsafe to be outside for extended periods. MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times
    MacDill Air Force Base is predicted to see big increases in days the heat index tops 100 degrees.
  2. Andrew Morrow, 67, an Army veteran, has a place to live through Operation Reveille and the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Coalition. Some days, Morrow said, he would wake up crying after a night on the streets. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Through Operation Reveille, advocates spend the year finding housing for Hillsborough’s homeless veterans. Their numbers have fallen since it launched in 2014.
  3. Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Israel killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza early Tuesday in a resumption of pinpointed targeting that threatens a fierce round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) HATEM MOUSSA  |  AP
    The Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, setting off a furious barrage of Gaza-fired rockets that reached as far as the Tel Aviv
  4. U.S. Army veteran Don Adams, 65, (right) holds his Veterans Treatment Court Certificate of Completion as he hugs Hillsborough Judge Michael Scionti last week. The special court graduated its 700th veteran during a presentation  in honor of the Veteran's Day weekend. "This court saved my life," said Adams, who did not want to participate in the program at first. "This court saved me from me." Pictured left is James. A Jeffries, Chaplain for Hillsborough County veterans. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times
    The specialized version of drug court puts veterans’ rehabilitation at the forefront. It is becoming a national model.
  5. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. JAMAL THALJI  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Provincial governor Gholamreza Shariati told IRNA that the drone belonged to a “foreign” country and that parts of it had been recovered in a nearby lagoon.
  6. Pasco County community news TMCCARTY80  |  Tara McCarty
    Members of the West Pasco Dental Association are providing the service.
  7. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is displayed on a monitor as U.S. Central Command Commander Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie at a joint press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, on the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP
    Al-Baghdadi was identified by comparing his DNA to a sample collected in 2004 by U.S. forces in Iraq, where he had been detained.
  8. Medal of Honor recipient and retired Navy Seal Lt. Thomas Norris shakes hands with Angelina Anderson, 11, during a visit to Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday. Michele Miller
    The visits were a collaboration with the Medal of Honor Character Foundation.
  9. The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. The X-37B OTV is an an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. It broke a record after staying 780 consecutive days in orbit.

 Air Force
    The Air Force will let you see photos of the reusable, unmanned X-37B. But its classified missions remain a mystery.
  10. Melvin Morris is seen in this undated photo by Nick Del Calzo. NICK DEL CALZO  |  Photo by
    Some were born in Florida. Others joined up here. All received the nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.