NEW YORK (PIX11) — Advocates who pushed forward 9/11 health benefits said it was a “no-brainer” fight to get involved with.
They have teamed up with family members of veterans who say their loved ones became sick and, in some cases, lost their lives while serving their country and being exposed to toxic chemicals overseas.
“In 2019 after a courageous battle with a rare aggressive cancer … my husband passed away,” said Gina Cancelino at a press conference Thursday.
Marine Corps veteran and NYPD Sergeant Joseph Cancelino left behind his wife, Gina, and two daughters.
For years his family and 3.5 million other families of veterans, both living and deceased, have been fighting with the VA. They want to claim health and death benefits because their loved ones were exposed to toxic burn pits overseas.
“These pits, which the military used for decades to dump all sorts of toxic waste, from computer equipment to clothes to human waste to medical waste, they lit it all on fire with jet fuel and created a horrible toxic mess they breathed in every day,” said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has championed this cause.
Moreover, the military and the government made families wanting to claim benefits for the health havoc caused by this exposure jump through hoops before ultimately denying most claims. Cancelino said at one point she was sent a form by a third-party medical evaluator addressed to her deceased husband. It asked him to stand ready to show up to medical evaluation appointments.
Washington gridlock concerned about cost prevented these families from getting help for years, until they linked up in 2019 with 9/11 advocates like John Feal.
“These veterans, these men and women who protect us around the world, had the same illnesses as 9/11 responders,” Feal said. “So this was a no-brainer.”
Feal and his FealGood Foundation have earned a reputation for brow-beating politicians into extending and replenishing the 9/11 fund. With his help whipping up bipartisan support, Congress appears poised to award benefits to millions of service members and their families.
A new bill would treat burn pit ailments much like the 9/11 fund does. The VA will have to presume that if a service member was near a burn pit or other toxic military-controlled areas, it was the cause of the illness.
“No longer will they be forced to suffer and even die while our nation and government fail them,” Gillibrand said.
The bill already passed the U.S. House of Representatives and it is expected to get a vote in the U.S. Senate next week. Gillibrand said she is still whipping votes, but advocates including Feal said they were confident the bill would clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.