WASHINGTON — Veterans have been fighting to get sufficient coverage for being exposed to burn pits while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan for years.
Some believe Congress should act more quickly to pass a law to provide coverage, so how likely will that happen? What is the holdup?
Millions were exposed
"I was living by those infamous burn pits," Torres said during a recent interview in Washington, D.C. "The stench was horrific. It smelt like burning rubber."
A burn pit was often used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the military to get rid of waste. Jet fuel was used many times to keep the fires going. The burning created toxins that many service members and contractors believe made them sick.
Torres says he never should have been that close, and his lungs have never been the same.
"Living next to this burn pit has caused damage — not externally, but to my lungs," Torres said.
The issue is that the Veterans Affairs system doesn't recognize burn pit exposure the same way it does being involved in other scenarios, like a bombing, for example.
It is estimated over 3 million veterans were exposed over the years, though coverage and benefits are often denied. For years, celebrities like Jon Stewart have pressured Congress to act, but so far it hasn't worked.
"Let's dig a giant [expletive] pit, 10 acres long and burn everything in Washington and cover it in jet fuel, and let me know how long they want to wait," Stewart said at a recent rally at the Capitol.
Why the delay?
Like many things in politics, lawmakers have not yet provided these benefits to veterans because the issue is complicated.
"This will lead to longer wait times for veterans. It will put a strain on VA resources," Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) said in a recent hearing on the topic.
Bost was speaking critically of the Honoring our PACT Act, which would grant veterans new benefits and access to VA health care. Bost and other conservatives in Congress fear the VA might not be able to handle the influx of new patients.
There are also cost concerns. The PACT Act has a price tag of $300 billion or so over 10 years.
Bost and other conservatives are pushing for the less expensive "Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act" instead, which would provide benefits more gradually.
Many progressives have said that doesn't go far enough. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, recently asked the all-important question before a Senate hearing.
"Tell me what I should tell the people who say we just can't afford this type of expenditure?" Tester said to supporters of the bill. "We just need to find a way," Kristina Keenan with the Veterans of Foreign Wars responded.
The Senate is expected to vote on the issue this year.
Whether Congress actually changes laws this year is unclear. However, Torres and others do feel their moment for change is taking place.
President Joe Biden recently made the issue a priority in his State of the Union address.
"Finally it's picked up traction after 12 years," Torres said.