How one California family helped win new benefits for sickened vets

Jennifer Kepner seemed like one of the healthiest people you could meet. She ran, she did CrossFit and she worked at the local hospital in Cathedral City.

Then her back started to hurt.

Doctors found a mass on her pancreas. But they couldn’t figure out why someone so healthy had developed pancreatic cancer at the age of 37, which is extremely rare in young people. Finally, an oncologist pointed out the only red flag in Jennifer’s otherwise pristine medical history: her proximity to a burn pit while serving as an Air Force medic at Balad Air Force Base, Iraq.

As Jennifer’s health declined, the Department of Veterans Affairs rejected application after application for benefits to support her treatment and family, including her husband Ben and their two young children. The Department of Defense uses burn pits like the one at Jennifer’s base to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment, and human waste. But the Kepners were unable to convince the agency that Jennifer’s illness was a result of inhaling the toxic fumes from the fire pit.

Furious at the VA’s reluctance, Jennifer’s friends and associates reached out to local media and the couple’s congressman. MP Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Springs). In 2017, Ruiz met the Kepners at their kitchen table and vowed to make sure their family and families like them get the help they need.

Jennifer passed away on October 18, 2017 at the age of 37.

Shortly after Jennifer passed, the VA’s first check finally arrived at the Kepners’ home. “Her biggest struggle was that she didn’t want other families to go through what we went through,” Ben Kepner told the Times. “It was a year and a half struggle while she was alive, dealing with her health and then also with the VA. It’s been hell for a year and a half with next to no help from the VA, these are the people who are supposed to be taking care of you. … That’s the last thing you want to deal with.”

After Jennifer’s death, Ben and Ruiz continued to work to make sure other families didn’t have to endure what she did.

They celebrated a major victory on Wednesday when President Biden signed the $280 billion PACT Act into law at the White House. The measure directs Veterans Affairs to presume that certain cancers and respiratory illnesses are related to exposure to charcoal pits, allowing veterans to receive disability payments without having to prove their illness resulted from their service, as was the case with the Kepners. One of the measures in the package, titled the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act, will give veterans exposed to cremation pits eligibility for VA Healthcare.

“So many of you here today are reminding us that we fought for this for so many years,” Biden said during the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House. Biden’s older son Beau died of cancer after serving in Iraq. Beau “got lost to the same burn pits,” Biden said.

The new law removes the burden of proof that burdened families like the Kepners and was years in the making, Ruiz said. One of the biggest hurdles he faced was the lack of definitive scientific evidence that disease could be linked to exposure to fire pits.

“There were hundreds of toxic chemicals and known carcinogens being tested from the smoke from the soil near the burn pits,” Ruiz said. “We don’t have time for the 20-year double-cohort longitudinal study to prove causality. … In this case, there was enough scientific suspicion and evidence in the literature and in medical practice that cremation pits caused disease so severe—people were dying and are still dying—that we must do something about it.”

According to Ruiz’s office, six open-air kilns remain operational in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Chad. About 70% of disability claims related to the cremation pit exposure are disputed by Veterans Affairs, citing a lack of evidence, scientific data and Department of Defense information.

“Over 8 million veterans and families will be positively impacted,” said Ruiz, who authored several of the burn pit regulations, of the new law. “Their pain and suffering will be reduced because they have access to health care, and their widows and families will be cared for because they will receive their benefits.”

The bill, which the Senate passed 86-11 earlier this month, is considered the largest expansion of veteran health care in decades. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam War veterans and survivors will also benefit from the new law. It adds hypertension or high blood pressure as a putative medical condition linked to exposure to Agent Orange.

Senators approved the bill in June but had to vote again this month to approve a technical fix. Senate Republicans then blocked progress on the bill, saying they wanted to change another piece of legislation. The delay outraged veterans’ groups and advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, many of whom camped out in the Capitol in protest.

Ruiz and Kepner said the law is just a step toward greater justice. Both are aimed at getting the Department of Defense to end its practice of using incendiary pits entirely. In the recent National Defense Authorization Act, Ruiz secured language directing the agency to look for alternatives to burn pits.

“My wife kind of started out with the phrase, ‘It’s this generation’s Agent Orange, and it really is,'” Kepner said. “This law means the world, not just to me, but to everyone going through what we’ve been through. … They served their country and were exposed to ridiculous, harmful carcinogens. It’s just unacceptable.” How one California family helped win new benefits for sickened vets

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