Our Veterans Are Still Suffering | Opinion

America's longest war may be over, but many veterans who answered the call to serve their nation are still suffering. Countless service members still endure harm from their exposure to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond. Their anguish—mental and physical—is real, and it is devastating for our service members and their families.

For far too long, the federal bureaucracy downplayed, slow-walked or outright ignored the science behind burn pit exposure. As a result, our veterans have been left without the critical care and support they deserve.

We must be better as a nation. We cannot turn our backs on the brave service men and women who, while serving their country, were forced to breathe in toxic fumes and smoke from burn pits—in which everything from electronics to tires to human waste were set alight with jet fuel—and are now suffering from associated diseases.

It is time to pass our Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act.

If enacted, veterans who served in a theater with open burn pits and have certain diseases—like chronic bronchitis and brain cancer—will have their treatment paid for. Period. No more bureaucratic studies. No more bureaucratic red tape. No more veterans left behind.

Many of these war fighters were just children when the twin towers fell, when the Pentagon burned and when the heroes of Flight 93 saved countless lives. They saw 2,977 people die because evil men came to America to inflict terror. These veterans selflessly answered the call.

Our war fighters had a job to do, and they did it without hesitation. They did it with valor, honor and distinction, and the understanding they would be taken care of when they returned home.

Afghanistan burn pit
ZHARI, AFGHANISTAN: Two interpreters for Bravo troop dump their trash in the base's "burn pit." Bravo "Bonecrusher" Troop of the 1-75 Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division recently deployed to the Pashmul area in the Zhari District of Kandahar Province which is a stronghold of the Taliban. They are partnered with Afghan soldiers from 2nd Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 205th Corps. Bravo Troop is part of the new US surge into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Sebastian Meyer/Corbis/Getty Images

Army combat veteran Mark T. Jackson was deployed to Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan, where troops were sent just weeks after September 11. He told us about the toxic conditions there: the ground that oozed black goo, the air that hung heavy and ashen and the standing water that changed colors throughout the day. He described the burn pits that sent black smoke and soot into the air like malevolent snow that clung to service members' tents, clothes, skin and lungs. And he spoke about his comrades who went to war at the peak of fitness and are now sick, dying or lost to ALS, to heart disease, to glioblastoma. Our message to him, and to all of our service members, is simple: we are eternally indebted to you for your service and your sacrifice, and we are going to fight just as hard for you as you have for us.

This is not a new fight, of course. In many ways, it mirrors the fight to get health care coverage for police officers, firefighters and other first responders who raced into burning and falling buildings on September 11. They were exposed to many of the same toxins at Ground Zero and now suffer from, or have succumbed to, many of the same debilitating respiratory illnesses and cancers. It took years of fighting to pass legislation to provide our first responders with the health coverage they had more than earned. We can't let that history repeat itself in the fight to provide health coverage for the men and women who contributed to the effort to degrade al-Qaeda and hunt down Osama bin Laden.

Now is the time to do the right thing for our war fighters. This isn't a partisan issue. This isn't a budget issue. This is a moral issue.

Taliban control of Afghanistan and the resurgence of terrorist groups across the globe remind us that our fight against evil is far from over. Our nation will continue to rely on young, patriotic men and women to answer the call of duty and protect our great nation and its people.

Their selflessness was on display in Afghanistan to the very end. The very least we can do as a nation is make sure those suffering from chronic and crippling diseases from their exposure to burn pits get the care they deserve. It is the right thing to do, and we're going to get it done.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Florida. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from New York.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.