Bipartisan veterans bill helps give heroes their due

by State Rep. Tarik Khan, 194th District
Posted 4/25/24

 The resolution establishes the Pennsylvania Task Force on Agent Orange and Other Toxins.

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Bipartisan veterans bill helps give heroes their due


As my mom tells it, the neighborhood kids always wanted Dave on their team.

Dave’s speed and confidence meant that his team usually won. Dave also constantly cracked jokes, which made those pick-up game’s victory all the sweeter. 

But after Dave's gallant military service in Vietnam, he told friends he never quite felt like himself.

His throat always seemed to itch and tingle. Like a few sips of water might clear it. But never really did. The nagging cough began later, and then seemed to be constant. And although he was always a thriving kid, Dave's cycle of recurrent sinus infections now seemed endless. 

Dave's respiratory issues and other seemingly unrelated health problems always stumped his doctors. He was tired a lot. His hands and feet constantly tingled. 

Dave could not conceive children anymore, even though he had kids before the war. Later in adulthood, Dave never seemed to be able to catch a full breath of air.

Years after his service, Dave and his many fellow Vietnam veterans learned their array of health problems stemmed from their exposure to Agent Orange. This chemical was a toxic blend of herbicides that was meant, in part, to help the troops by clearing dense foliage.

It is now estimated that virtually all of the 2.7 million military members stationed in Vietnam for the war (and even more Vietnamese citizens) were exposed to Agent Orange. 

Shamefully, the chemical companies and our government largely downplayed the significant health concerns of Agent Orange, including birth disorders and cancers. 

Today, several cancers and other deadly health concerns in veterans are presumed to be related to Agent Orange exposure.

 While 58,000 service members tragically perished in combat during the conflict, nearly five times that number of veterans (and 400,000 Vietnamese citizens) have since died as a result of their exposure to this deadly compound.

 Service members' significant exposure to toxic chemicals was not just limited to vets like Dave who served in Vietnam. During the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other areas of Southwest Asia where the U.S had combat operations, our service members routinely inhaled the toxins of burning trash.

 A lot of it. 

 Hazardous materials like munitions, medical waste, and items containing per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) or forever chemicals like uniforms were frequently burned in open-air pits by our military. Nearly 3.5 million service members were directly exposed to these dangerous pits. And research shows that many veterans returning from these conflict areas have significant health concerns related to their burn pit exposure.

 Cancers of the brain, kidney, lymphatic system, and respiratory illnesses like COPD are among the approximately two dozen categories of illnesses that are now presumed to be caused by exposure to burn pits. 

 To help them deal with the repercussions of their exposure, veterans with Agent Orange and other toxic chemical injuries are eligible for tax-free monetary payments. And while these disability benefits vary depending on the severity of injury and dependents, they can add up to several thousand dollars a month.

 Unfortunately, studies show that many veterans who should be getting these essential benefits do not know of their existence. For instance, a recent poll of veterans with health issues related to burn pit exposure showed that over half were unaware of their eligibility for benefits.

 My bipartisan resolution with Reps. Paul Takac (D.,Centre), Mike Cabell (R., Luzerne), Brian Munroe (D., Bucks), Abby Major (R., Armstrong/Westmoreland), and others establishes the Pennsylvania Task Force on Agent Orange and Other Toxins to study and issue recommendations on how best to connect veterans exposed to these toxic chemicals and their families to their benefits.

 Our resolution creates a task force to examine facilitators and barriers to help veterans learn about their eligible disability benefits. This task force will also develop recommendations to improve veterans' access to these services.

The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will provide administrative support to the task force. This task force will include representatives appointed from veterans' organizations and a healthcare provider that provides services to veterans. Elected officials will be able to appoint veterans and veteran family members to this task force.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives, in a rare moment of unified bipartisanship, unanimously passed and adopted our resolution on March 27, 2024, by a vote of 201-0. The committee has nine months to make its recommendations to the Senate and House of Representatives.

After years of fighting the government on behalf of himself and his fellow veterans, Dave finally got access to the benefits he was owed. Like his childhood neighbors and the members he served with, Dave's fellow vets were grateful to have him on their team, fighting for them. Sadly, Dave recently died of upper respiratory cancer — presumed to be directly related to his exposure to Agent Orange.

My fellow co-sponsors and I hope our legislation will help veterans learn of the benefits that Dave and his fellow vets fought so hard to establish. We also hope this bill will help ease some of the burden of veterans who are still owed a debt by our nation for their selfless service and sacrifices for our country.

If you are a veteran or a veteran's family member and have questions about benefits, please call our office at (215) 482-8726 or email at reptarik@pahouse.net.