TARPON SPRINGS — Bipartisan legislation now before the U.S. House will seek to help thousands of veterans suffering from the debilitating effects of burn pit toxin illnesses.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis held a news conference Aug. 27 at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, at St. Petersburg College Tarpon Campus, to announce the filing of the bill to aid veterans who were exposed to toxins from burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the health issues are affecting thousands of veterans who were exposed to burning trash pits on or near military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite health conditions ranging from breathing problems to brain tumors, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny any causation links between the inhalation of deadly toxins emanating from the pits and the serious and often fatal ailments, according to the New York Times report. As a result, many afflicted veterans can’t get proper medical coverage.

Flanked by three vets suffering from burn pit-related illnesses at the news conference last week, Bilirakis called the issue “the Agent Orange of this generation,” and he said he was happy to see this decade-long fight for justice finally coming to a conclusion.

Agent Orange was a chemical defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War that was linked to health problems among veterans of the war in Southeast Asia.

“The bipartisan bill that I’m unveiling today has been heavily influenced by the heartbreaking stories you will hear from these veterans today,” Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor who is also a ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said. “Right now, bureaucracy is keeping sick veterans from being able to access the medical care and benefits they’re deserved, they’ve earned.”

Stating it’s “a widely known fact that veterans serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were exposed to toxic chemicals and burn pits during their deployments” and suffered debilitating illnesses as a result, Bilirakis said the Protection for Veterans Burn Pit Exposure Act “seeks to correct this great injustice.”

According to Lauren Price, a 10-year Navy vet who did a 13-month tour in Iraq as a convoy driver in 2007, said she was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a fatal respiratory disease sometimes referred to as “popcorn lung,” 18 months after she returned home.

Price has been in the forefront of the drive to stop open-air waste burning at military sites.

“Myself and several others discovered that certain new medications and certain lifestyle changes have allowed us to live a little longer than the anticipated lifespan of five to seven years,” Price said. “So, we’re still here.”

In the meantime, she and her organization will do what they can to get the Department of Defense to end open-air waste burning, Price said.

Andrew Brewer, a 31-year-old Crystal River resident who served in the Indiana National Guard for eight years, said the pits, which contained everything from rubber tires to medical waste, burned around the clock. Brewer operated a burn pit during the 11 months he was deployed.

“What a lot people don’t realize is a lot of the time, it’s being burned 24 hours, so you’re breathing it 24 hours,” he said. “If you’re sleeping, you’re breathing it in.”

Exposure to burn-pit toxins is among the biggest factors causing the illnesses in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Brewer said.

In 2018, Brewer was diagnosed with obliterative bronchiolitis, a rare lung disease, and was given 15 years to live. According to the National Institutes of Health, inhaling chemicals is one possible cause of obliterative bronchitis.

“After my diagnosis, everything fell apart,” Brewer said, noting he went through a divorce and a bankruptcy as a result. “It ripped my family apart.”

He said he has since been able to obtain full medical coverage for his treatment, but he’s still bitter about the toll it has taken.

“It’s very aggravating,” Brewer said. “But I’m glad I’m finally getting everything covered.”

Brewer also praised Bilirakis for fighting so hard and for so long for this important cause.

“I’m glad someone is finally fighting for us, because we’ve been fighting for ourselves for so long,” he said.

Before Bilirakis left, he assured the vets he would not let the matter go until it’s rightfully resolved.

“This could’ve been prevented,” Bilirakis said of the practice of open pit burning. “It really is inexcusable. Our veterans suffer from invisible wounds and physical wounds which in some ways could’ve been prevented. We have to correct this great injustice….and each of you have my promise I will not rest until that happens.”