VFW-Supported Burn-Pit Bill Introduced to House

‘This important legislation would make individuals eligible for hospital care, medical services and nursing home care’

A bill introduced to the House could provide veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who were exposed to burn pits the same VA medical care as Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The VFW-supported Jennifer Kepner Healthcare for Open-Air Burn-Pit Exposure (HOPE) Act, H.R. 4137, was introduced to the House by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) in August.

A member of the Air Force tosses items into a burn pit in Balad, Iraq

Air Force Master Sgt. Darryl Sterling, of the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in March 2008 in Balad, Iraq. The obituary of Jennifer Kepner, the namesake of the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act, states she died from pancreatic cancer “due to the open exposure burn pits” while serving in Balad, Iraq, in 2004.

If passed and signed into law, H.R. 4137 would add vets exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits to the VA’s priority group 6, meaning it would allow veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars the same treatment as veterans exposed to toxic chemicals. 

VFW National Legislative Director Carlos Fuentes said Ruiz also is working on a separate bill that could provide compensation benefits for conditions that are known to be associated with burn-pit exposure.

“This important legislation would make individuals eligible for hospital care, medical services and nursing home care, provided the individual served as a member of the armed forces in support of a contingency operation and was based or stationed at a location where an open air burn pit was in use after Jan. 1, 1990,” Fuentes said. “The eligibility for care would be open even for those who have insufficient medical evidence to conclude that a disease or disability is associated with burn pit exposure.”

The bill is named in honor of Air Force veteran Jennifer Kepner, of Cathedral City, Calif. She died from pancreatic cancer “due to the open exposure burn pits” while serving in Balad, Iraq, in 2004 as a medic, according to her obituary from The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif.

“Jennifer Kepner was a hero who courageously battled pancreatic cancer while fighting for her fellow veterans suffering from pulmonary conditions and rare cancers linked to burn-pit exposure,” Ruiz said. “I am humbled to introduce the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act in her memory, legislation that will ease the financial burden on sick veterans who have served and sacrificed for our nation by reducing their health care costs from the VA.”

This article was featured in the November/December 2019 issue of VFW magazine.


State HQ has APO Info for Deployed PA Guardians

PA VFW State HQ has received a list of APOs for PA National Guardians serving overseas. If you would like to send care packages to these brave men and women, who will be spending the holidays away from family, please email State VFW Public Affairs/Communications Director David Sandman, [email protected], and put “PA Guard APOs” in the subject line.

Wendy’s-PA VFW Grant Program Continues to Improve Lives

On Nov. 12th, representatives of Wendy’s restaurants in PA’s west/central region presented another significant check to PA Veterans of Foreign Wars officers to support military families and veterans facing hardship.

The campaign’s ninth check—for $35,224—was presented by Wendy’s, bringing the campaign donation total to $291,746 since the program’s beginning. During that time, 160 grants have been distributed—including 19 grants so far in 2019—to assist those serving in, and those who have served in, the military.

The campaign name is “The Michael J. Beaver Wendy’s-Pennsylvania Veterans of Foreign Wars Military Assistance Grant Program,” in honor of the fund’s creator. Mr. Beaver of Salix was an Army Special Forces veteran, who wanted to “return the favor” to military personnel and veterans. Mike passed away four years ago. His wife, Mrs. Diane Beaver, works with other Wendy’s franchise owners to keep supporting military troops and veterans through the grant program.

Wendy’s in the following areas participate in this campaign through a fundraising program: Somerset (Somerset county); Johnstown, Ebensburg (Cambria county); Altoona, Duncansville (Blair county); Bedford, Breezewood (Bedford county); Clarion (Clarion county); Indiana (Indiana county); Punxsutawney (Jefferson county); DuBois (Clearfield county); St. Marys (Elk county); State College (Centre county); Huntingdon (Huntingdon county); and Lewistown (Mifflin county).

The annual donations are made possible by a summer Wendy’s Key Tag fundraiser, when customers purchase a $1 Frosty Key tag and received a Free Jr. Frosty with Wendy’s purchase until December 31st. All proceeds are donated to the State VFW State Headquarters to assist military families and veterans in areas where Wendy’s stores participate in the fundraising campaign. Applications are submitted to the VFW State HQ by National Guard Family Assistance Specialists, officers in active and reserve units, and veterans’ assistance providers.

“The Wendy’s campaign leaders and the participating Wendy’s stores continue to provide an outstanding level of life-changing financial support for military personnel, their families and veterans facing hard times. The VFW is very appreciative of the support that Wendy’s, their customers and the media give to this fundraiser,” said State Commander Wayne D. Perry. “We are proud to be a part of this important project because serving and supporting our troops and veterans is a top VFW priority. We thank Wendy’s for serving up such strong support for our troops and veterans.”

“Dave Thomas believed that giving back and supporting our community is everyone’s responsibility,” said Wendy’s franchise owners. “Wendy’s is involved in thousands of local events each year that lend a hand to those in need. This key tag fundraiser was one way of giving back to the local community where we live and work. It is especially meaningful to help many families of those who sacrifice so much to defend our freedom and to whom we owe so much!”

VFW Demands Answers from White House, VA for Delayed Additional of AO Diseases

‘The health and welfare of our nation’s veterans should, and must, be our number one priority’

WASHINGTON – Military Times today reported that White House officials, including Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, are responsible for the delayed decision on additional Agent Orange diseases.

“In light of today’s news regarding the continued delay to add four presumptive diseases to the Agent Orange list, the VFW is extremely upset and dissatisfied with the backdoor political games that are being played in Washington as the lives of our veterans are at stake,” said VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz. “The health and welfare of our nation’s veterans should, and must, be our number one priority.”

According to the story, White House officials challenged the authority of former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and impeded enactment of three additional health conditions to the list of diseases eligible for Agent Orange benefits. The article included an excerpt written by Shulkin and sent to Mulvaney requesting support for his effort to expand the list of Agent Orange presumptive diseases.

“What we are seeing this week only underscores the need for Congress to take up comprehensive toxic exposure legislation for veterans during this term,” said Patrick Murray, deputy director of VFW National Legislative Service. “Every time we send our men and women to war we end up deliberating for decades as to whether or not they were exposed to toxic chemicals. This type of absurdity must stop.”

When the VFW came to Capitol Hill 100 years ago, we argued that veterans of World War I deserved health care and compensation benefits because of the human tolls of war. Today is not different.

“The White House and VA must do the right thing and approve these Agent Orange presumptive conditions immediately,” said Schmitz. “We cannot, and will not, stand by and allow another veteran to lose their life because of the bureaucracy of Washington. The time for waiting is over.”

VFW, Gratitude Initiative Collaborate to Support Military Families

College Success Academy provides full-service college and career prep

The Veterans of Foreign Wars is proud to announce it is teaming up with Gratitude Initiative to provide vital support for the children of service members and veterans.

Co-founded by former Army Captain and Operations Desert Shield/Storm veteran, Lee Sechrist, Gratitude Initiative’s College Success Academy program utilizes degreed counselors and an online environment to provide full-service college and career preparatory support for veteran and military children all over the world at no cost to the family.

America’s military families face unique educational challenges, as children of active-duty service members are often required to relocate between six and twelve times before graduating high school. With more than 2 million military children having a parent on active duty, 66 percent struggle with academic and school-related issues.

“The VFW’s more than 1.16 million members understand better than most the strains and hardship military life can put on not only service members, but their dependents,” said VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz. “The VFW’s 120-year mission to support military and veteran families aligns effortlessly with Gratitude Initiative’s work to ensure the children of our heroes have the support and assistance they need to be successful, no matter where their parent’s service takes them.”

“Gratitude Initiative is thrilled to join forces with VFW,” said Lee Sechrist, co-founder and executive director of Gratitude Initiative. “Aligning with such an established, respected veteran service organization like the VFW will help us serve even more veteran and military families and their children with our college and career preparatory program.”

The Gratitude Initiative and VFW collaboration will work to not only further the program’s reach, but help raise awareness of the unique challenges America’s military and veteran families face before, during and after their military service.

VFW Urges Blue Water Veterans to Contact a Service Officer

‘This class of veterans was unjustly and arbitrarily excluded from compensation benefits for nearly 20 years.

With the legislative and judicial battles seemingly over for the Vietnam War’s so-called “blue water” Navy veterans, the process for them to receive VA compensation is just beginning.

National Veterans Service Director Ryan Gallucci said that contacting a VFW Service Officer should be a common course of action for all blue water veterans affected by Agent Orange exposure. This would include those who have never filed a claim, as well as those who have filed that were granted compensation and stripped of their benefits.

“This class of veterans was unjustly and arbitrarily excluded from compensation benefits for nearly 20 years,” VFW National Veterans Service Deputy Director Michael Figlioli said. “We are pleased to see Congress and VA make them whole. VFW looks forward to assisting every one of them who seek our help, which is always free of charge and has no VFW membership requirement attached.” 

In June, President Donald Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 into law (P.L. 116-23). It restores VA benefits to Vietnam War blue water sailors (those who served aboard ships off the coast of Vietnam) who had their disability eligibility arbitrarily taken away by VA in 2002. Those veterans also could be eligible for retroactive benefits.

The law, which goes into effect in January 2020, requires VA to contact veterans who filed a disability claim that originally was denied.

“The VA told us that they are being proactive in reaching out to the veterans who were given benefits then stripped in 2002,” Gallucci said. “However, people will slip through the cracks. VA may not have identified everybody, so it’s important for veterans who believe that they are covered by the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act or the Procopio decision to reach out to a VFW service officer.”

Also in June, the Department of Justice decided not to contest a federal case ruling that paved the way for VA to restore the availability of disability benefits to blue water Navy veterans. In the case of Procopio v. Wilkie, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., ruled that Alfred Procopio Jr., a Life member of VFW Post 6587 in Spring Lake Park, Minn., is eligible for VA disability benefits. The Vietnam War Navy veteran claims his diabetes and prostate cancer diagnosis is linked to Agent Orange exposure off the Vietnamese coast while serving aboard the USS Intrepid in 1964-67. 

The court’s decision also means that VA can no longer deny disability benefits to eligible blue water Navy veterans. To qualify for Agent Orange-related benefits, a veteran must have one or more of the conditions VA presumes to have been caused by exposure.

The 14 presumptive diseases on the list are:

  • Chronic B-cell Leukemia
  • Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Respiratory Cancers 
  • Soft Tissue Sarcomas
  • AL Amyloidosis
  • Chloracne
  • Diabetes Mellitus Type
  • Ischemic Heart Disease
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Early onset Peripheral Neuropathy
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda

For help with a disability claim, find a VFW service officer at vfw.org/NVS.

HB 1048 Passes PA House; VFW Needed to Urge State Senators to Follow Suit

With strong support and emails/phone calls from the VFW, House Bill 1048 was unanimously passed in the PA House 199-0! This is the bill that, if passed by both chambers and signed by the governor, will give national veterans service organizations and fire companies an exemption to the annual PA Liquor License renewal surtax of $700. The PA Senate must now act on the legislation.

With the number of 2019 legislative days drawing down, VFW posts and auxiliaries should contact their State Senators asking them to act quickly on the Senate’s version of HB 1048. To find your State Senator’s contact information, visit https://www.legis.state.pa.us/ and see “Find My Legislator” on the left side of the home page.

Posts can receive a sample letter requesting legislative support for HB 1048 by emailing [email protected] and putting “HB 1048” in the subject line. Time is of the essence since the number of legislative work days in the current session are winding down.

Shown are (from left) Adjutant Joe Casey, Commander Jake Knapp, Trustee Mike Nozilo, Rep. Chris Quinn, O.D. Ed Modestowicz, Quartermaster Bob Hughes and Jr. Vice Cmdr Ken Delmar.