BRUNSWICK — As we start a new Congress and welcome a new administration, the federal government has the opportunity to take new steps to address issues plaguing the military community.
These problems include exposure to burn pits while troops are deployed, as well as a TRICARE program that is difficult to navigate. Taking on these issues, and more, is critical to meeting our obligation to protect the health, safety, security and morale of our service members and their families, including those at Fort Drum.
That starts with addressing the looming health care crisis in our military and veteran community created by exposure to burn pits and other toxins on bases around the world. For years, burn pits were used to destroy everything from medical waste to electronics; they exposed more than 3 million service members to a toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris. Now many are sick and dying from cancers and respiratory illnesses.
I have met too many ailing veterans who have spent months or even years jumping through hoops to prove their illnesses are linked to burn pit exposure, only for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to deny their claims, saying there isn’t enough evidence. But we do have evidence.
We know what was burned and what was in the soil. We know that the toxic fumes and environmental conditions created by burn pits are so hazardous that they are outlawed on American soil. And we know that our 9/11 first-responders developed similar illnesses from exposure to many of the exact same toxins.
It took me years of fighting to get a permanent health program and compensation fund for those first-responders. We cannot let history repeat itself.
I will soon be reintroducing the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act to establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins and streamline the process for obtaining VA benefits.
To put it simply:
This bill says if you were there and you are sick, you are covered.
It should be that simple.
This is the cost of war, and the VA must cover it.
In the last months, we have also seen the results of inaction on another front: cyber defense.
The SolarWinds attack, which saw foreign hackers breach multiple federal agencies and thousands of companies and government offices, has been deemed the “largest and most sophisticated attack the world has ever seen.”
Parts of the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration and Treasury were attacked, and no one noticed for months.
This put the military, defense industry and country at incalculable risk.
As cyber-security threats and attacks become more frequent, bolstering and rebuilding our military cyber defenses, especially our cyber personnel, must be a priority.
Improving our cyber-security strategy and attracting the best and brightest personnel will be a major priority of mine on both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.
My priorities when it comes to our armed forces also include providing our military families with the support they need.
We must take action to ensure that no family who is serving our country should have to live in housing that is riddled with mold or vermin.
The National Defense Authorization Act last year included a requirement to audit the medical conditions of service members and their families who lived in unhealthy military privatized housing so we can get a better view of the situation and begin addressing it.
I also know we have to do more to meet the unique needs of military families with children with disabilities.
That is why I supported the provision in the NDAA that will require the Department of Defense’s Office of Special Needs to develop individualized service plans for families with special needs and the inclusion of $20 million of funding for Impact Aid for Severely Disabled Military Children.
We must improve family and support services overall, from TRICARE to mental health care for our warfighters.
Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should be able to focus on their jobs, not the stresses of the military bureaucracy.
This perspective and drive to make our armed forces operate in a manner worthy of the brave, dedicated people who serve in them will inform all of my work as chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.
Readiness is a result of our service members having faith in their leadership and government, and we must earn that faith by delivering results for our service members, our veterans and our military families.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., serves on the following committees: Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; Intelligence; and Special Committee on Aging. She lives in Brunswick with her husband, Jonathan Gillibrand, and their two sons, Theo and Henry.