Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough thanked The War Horse’s managing editor Kelly Kennedy for her dogged reporting on the health problems caused by exposure to toxic burn pits during a speech at the National Press Club yesterday.
“About this time 14 years ago, Kelly started the thankless and rigorous task of holding people accountable when she published her first of dozens of articles on the casualties of burn pits,” McDonough said. “Over the years, her work catalyzed the national conversation on burn pits, educated us on the effects of toxic exposure on the battlefield in stark terms we could no longer turn away from.”
McDonough’s speech, in the lead up to Veterans Day, highlighted the work the department is doing to address major issues affecting veterans, from suicide rates to homelessness access to care. McDonough also highlighted the recent passage of the PACT Act, which expands VA benefits for veterans exposed to toxins, including those from burn pits, during their service.
Kennedy initially broke the story that burn pits—huge open-air pits where the military burned trash and hazardous waste next to troops’ living and sleeping quarters on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan—were causing rare cancers and other health problems in veterans who had been exposed.
For years, the Defense Department and VA denied a connection between burn pits and health problems even as more returning veterans fell ill. The PACT Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in August, is a major step toward acknowledging the harm burn pits caused and getting veterans the health care they need. The measure extends presumptive status for 23 different medical conditions to veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including brain, neck, pancreatic, and other cancers, as well as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions. It expands access to benefits to veterans exposed to Agent Orange and provides toxic exposure screening to all veterans enrolled in VA health care. McDonough also announced the VA will begin expediting veterans’ benefits claims if they have been diagnosed with cancer.
“We’ll bring generations of new vets into VA health care and increase the health care benefits ofmany more—and that will result in better health outcomes, across the board,” McDonough said.
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Kennedy first started covering burn pits as a reporter at Military Times, after receiving a memo by a bioenvironmental engineering flight commander for Joint Base Balad highlighting his concerns over the health impacts of burning things like styrofoam, paint, and petroleum products. “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years without significant engineering controls being put in place,” the flight commander, Darrin Curtis, wrote.
Kennedy’s reporting covered the hazards that burn pits pose and the human impact of exposure, as she connected with young servicemembers struggling to breathe and battling cancer diagnoses. Her coverage has continued at The War Horse, where she wrote about VA’s long-time reluctance to address the problem and the department’s troubles tracking veterans’ burn pit exposure benefits claims.
“Kelly Kennedy’s years of dogged reporting about toxic exposure have not only provided poisoned veterans with the health care they earned, but will continue to inspire generations of military reporters to dig deeper, ask tougher questions, and pursue the most ambitious investigations possible,” said Thomas Brennan, the founder of The War Horse. “Kelly’s work will positively impact the lives of countless veterans for years to come, and The War Horse team is proud to see her being recognized by Sec. McDonough and the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
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McDonough’s comments at the National Press Club highlighted the urgency with which VA is now addressing the problem of toxic exposure—an outcome he attributed in part to journalists like Kennedy holding the department accountable in its mission of serving veterans.
“I don’t think it would have happened—not when it did—without Kelly’s dogged pursuit of the truth,” McDonough said. “Kelly told the human stories of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and families who were suffering, so we as a nation would not, and could not, forget.”
Editor’s note: For more information on receiving toxic exposure benefits, go to http://VA.gov/pact