When Gina Cancelino’s veteran husband Joe died in 2019 of cancer linked to toxic exposures in Iraq, he was still fighting for benefits at his home in Seaford, Long Island.
Three years later, his widow and two daughters are still fighting, but may finally get their victory from a bill that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed Tuesday to push through the United States Senate.
“I’m here to say unequivocally — no doubt — I will fully support the Honoring Our Pact Act, and the Senate will vote on it this Congress,” Schumer said at a news conference with veterans and other lawmakers.
The key part of that bill is legislation that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote modeled on the 9/11 health laws.
The problem for thousands of veterans like Cancelino’s late husband is that the military and the VA do not automatically assume that cancers — such as the rare, aggressive testicular cancer that claimed Joe — come from the burn pits exposed during their service.
Instead, they must do something that is rarely possible — prove that their specific illness came from inhaling the toxic smoke from burning human waste, electronics and other trash incinerated in massive open-air pits near where they lived and slept.
The Honoring Our Pact Act would end the fight and make any vet who served in the war on terror eligible for care and benefits for numerous cancers and breathing ailments.
“I hope that it actually goes through — and that everybody else who needs to support it does,” Cancelino told the News, referring to the need to get 60 votes in the Senate to win passage. The bill has already passed the House.
“We need 10 Republicans. That’s it,” said Jon Stewart, who has embraced the cause of ailing veterans. “After 20 years of fighting, this is what it comes down to — 10 Republicans.”
Gillibrand had two GOP cosponsors on her legislation, but other Republicans had been uncommitted or backing more modest proposals that Cancelino said would be no help to her or her children.
“The other Senate bill that’s in there, it leaves out our family,” Cancelino said. “It doesn’t cover survivors, and it’s not presumptive,” she said, meaning coverage is not automatic.
If the bill doesn’t pass, she faces an uncertain fate trying to get the benefits she needs to ensure she can keep her home and send her kids to college. “My case is still on appeal. I have an attorney handling my appeal — and Joe’s gone three years in July.”
Stewart suggested if members of Congress were subjected to smoke and toxins that members of the services had to inhale in the wars authorized by Congress, the bill would have passed long ago.
“You want to do it here? Let’s dig a giant f—ing pit 10 acres long and burn everything in Washington with jet fuel. And then let me know how long they want to wait before they think it’s gonna cause some health problems,” Stewart said. “Here’s the bottom line. You cannot be America first when you put veterans last.”
The VA estimates that at least 3 million members of the services were exposed to burn pits, some of which were the size of football fields. They were particularly in heavy use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military disposed of tons of waste daily by burning carcinogenic material that’s illegal in the United States.
Fully providing for veterans and families dealing with the consequences of exposure is likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the long haul. Some of the other legislation proposed in the Senate would cost less than Gillibrand’s, but she insisted it is the nation’s responsibility to pay it.
“This is the cost of war, period,” Gillibrand said. “When we send our troops all around the globe to defend democracy, to fight for our freedoms, to defeat terrorism, this is the promise we make them: You serve today, we take care of you tomorrow. That is our oath. And we have not stood by our service members.”
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