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NPR Health

Veterans exposed to toxic chemicals say they've won a historic expansion of VA care

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As we approach Memorial Day weekend, the military cemetery that I drive by from time to time has a flag by every grave. And there's huge news for veterans. Vets made sick by toxic exposures will get VA coverage through a bill that is slated to pass next month. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports It's going to be a bittersweet moment.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Vietnam vets were exposed to a carcinogenic herbicide, Agent Orange, as early as 1962. The Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged some of their illnesses as service-connected in the six decades since. In this last decade, Rosie Torres got involved.

ROSIE TORRES: For my husband - 13 years ago, I made him a promise as they were wheeling him into the operating table to have his lung biopsy.

LAWRENCE: Her husband, Le Roy, had deployed to Iraq and lived next to a massive field of burning trash. Back home, he had unexplained breathing problems and headaches. But the VA told him it wasn't related. The Torres family started the burn pit registry in 2010. Hundreds of thousands of vets signed up. And a few years later, the VA made an official government registry of vets who believe burn pits made them sick. Over the past decade, veterans organizations pressured Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON STEWART: Go back to your district and dig a 10-acre pit.

LAWRENCE: Advocates included comedian Jon Stewart. Here he is at a house hearing in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEWART: And then burn that pit 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But tell your constituents, don't worry. Fifteen years from now, we're going to convene a panel to discuss whether or not the health issues that you're having are in your head or not.

LAWRENCE: Despite some concerns about the cost, veterans health appears to be one of the few bipartisan spaces left in Washington. A Senate compromise has produced a comprehensive $200 billion bill that will cover toxic exposures from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf War and Vietnam. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough described it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENIS MCDONOUGH: The bill that has now been agreed to will be arguably the biggest expansion of authority here at VA in our history.

LAWRENCE: For Rosie Torres, it's bittersweet. Le Roy is still struggling. He's on oxygen 24 hours a day now.

TORRES: So I can't give a prognosis. But, you know, I don't want to go by the medical books. You know what I mean? I'd rather live just day by day.

LAWRENCE: But she says this comes too late for others she can name, veteran activists who died just months ago - Marine vet Kate Hendricks Thomas, National Guardsman Wesley Black and Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, for whom the bill is named.

TORRES: How do you celebrate something, you know, that you've been fighting for for so long, but you really know that that victory validates that none of those deaths were in vain once this bill passes?

LAWRENCE: President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law as early as next month. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.