(Washington, DC) - U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, along with Representatives Annie Kuster (NH-02) and Chris Pappas (NH-01) joined the Vermont congressional delegation in sending a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Denis R. McDonough, urging the VA to use its expanded authority under the historic PACT Act to extend benefits to veterans stationed in Kosovo from 1999 onwards that were exposed to toxic trash burning. Senator Hassan helped develop and pass into law the PACT Act, which fundamentally reforms and improves how veterans exposed to toxic substances receive health care and benefits from the VA.
“Ensuring our service members, no matter the mission, have access to the care and information they need to inform their health decisions is paramount. That’s why I was proud to support the PACT Act, which expanded health care for veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances,” said Senator Shaheen. “The PACT Act was a historic step forward to deliver the answers and provide access to care that our veterans need, but we must ensure those actions are as inclusive as possible and is why I’m calling for the VA to expand the authority granted in the PACT Act to include those who served in Kosovo. The Granite State has proudly deployed members of the New Hampshire National Guard to support the NATO Mission in Kosovo (KFOR), and for their service, they are owed the same access to information to guide their care as others who have similarly served.”
“Many veterans who served in Kosovo, including members of the New Hampshire National Guard, are at risk of serious illness due to toxic chemical exposure during their deployment,” said Senator Hassan. “The bipartisan PACT Act that my colleagues and I developed and passed into law took important steps to get health care to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is crucial that veterans who were exposed to burn pits in additional parts of the world can get the health care that they need as well. We must continue to provide high-quality care to veterans who have made tremendous sacrifices to keep the rest of us safe, secure, and free.”
“The brave men and women who were exposed to toxic chemicals while serving our country in uniform deserve access to the health care and benefits they have earned,” said Representative Kuster. “I was proud to help pass the PACT Act to live up to our promise to our nation’s service members, but the list of veterans protected by that legislation was not exhaustive. We must add our veterans who served in Kosovo to the presumption of exposure so they can access the care they need.”
“The Honoring Our PACT Act was a landmark piece of bipartisan legislation that helped expand health care to three million toxic-exposed veterans,” said Representative Pappas. “The legislation, at last, codifies into law what veterans have known for decades: toxic exposure is a cost of war. It also granted VA the authority to establish new presumptions of exposure for veterans depending on where and when they serve. That is why I am urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure that those who served in Kosovo are granted the same presumption of exposure as veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. These servicemembers bravely opposed a brutal dictator and put an end to horrific ethnic cleansing, saving countless lives. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for their service, and that includes ensuring they get the care and support they have earned for being exposed to toxic substances while standing against extremism and defending America’s values abroad.”
The Honoring Our PACT Act expanded VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, toxic chemicals and other hazards during service. The bill also granted the VA flexibility to add more locations to the list of deployment sites for which veterans are not required to prove they were exposed to hazards such as burn pits. The lawmakers’ letter urges the Department to add a presumption of coverage for exposure to burn bits and other airborne hazards for veterans who served in Kosovo from 1999 onwards and, in so doing, expedite and facilitate their access to essential VA benefits.
Also signing the letter were members of the Vermont delegation: U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) and Representative Becca Balint (VT-01).
Full text of the letter is available here.
Senator Shaheen serves as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Co-Chair of the Senate NATO Observer Group and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation. Through her role on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shaheen has long championed and supported measures to help veterans who’ve been exposed to toxic or hazardous materials. In the fiscal year (FY) 2020 defense bill that was signed into law, Shaheen supported a provision addressing the health evaluations of service members who have been exposed to open burn pits or toxic airborne chemicals. Open burn bits were used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the FY2021 NDAA that became law, Shaheen also supported an amendment offered by Senator Tester (D-MT) that would require the VA to provide benefits for veterans suffering from four diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
The Senate NATO Observer Group, re-established by Senators Shaheen and Thom Tillis in 2018, has an expanded mission to closely monitor and inform Senators outside of national security committees about defense spending commitments of Alliance members, the process of upgrading military capabilities, the Alliance’s counter-terrorism capabilities, NATO enlargement and the ability of NATO member states to address unconventional warfare threats. Shaheen led a bipartisan congressional delegation visit to Kosovo last year, as well as other nations in the Western Balkans, to address a number of issues including Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine, democratic reforms and much more. She has long supported the Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission deployed in the Balkans, which has included deployments from the New Hampshire Army National Guard, to maintain peace and stability in the region.
Senator Hassan is leading bipartisan efforts to strengthen support for veterans. For more than a year, Senator Hassan and fellow members of the Senate and House veterans committees worked together with the VA and Veterans Service Organizations to pass into law the PACT Act. The President also previously signed into law Senator Hassan’s bipartisan Hire Veteran Health Heroes Act of 2021, which she introduced with Republican Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), to direct the VA to create a program to recruit military medical personnel who have less than one year left in their service to work at the VA. President Biden also signed into law bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Hassan to strengthen the Solid Start program, through which VA employees contact every veteran three times by phone in the first year after veterans leave active duty service to check in and help connect these new veterans to VA programs and benefits. Additionally, the year-end government funding bill that was signed into law in December 2022 included Senator Hassan’s bipartisan legislation that directs the VA to designate one week per year as “Buddy Check Week” to organize outreach events and educate veterans on how to conduct peer wellness checks.