By Team

WASHINGTON (CBS) – On this Veterans Day–the White House is announcing new steps to look at the health effects of exposure to toxic contaminants while serving in the U.S. military. There are growing concerns as veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars develop a range of cancers after being exposed to military burn pits.

Marine veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas never imagined a battle with stage four breast cancer, a reality she’s had to share with her 7-year-old son, Matthew.

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“We’ve started to tell him the truth that, you know, mommy has a terminal condition and it is going to kill her, but that she’ll always be with you,” she described.

Hendricks Thomas learned of her diagnosis four years ago at age 38, more than a decade after returning home from Iraq.

“I was seeing my nurse practitioner for an annual exam and she said I want you to go get a mammogram based on where you’ve been stationed,” Hendricks Thomas recalled. “She said we’re seeing a lot of breast cancer in veteran women, I want you to go.”

Hendricks Thomas, who has no family history of breast cancer, didn’t realize danger had been lurking on base in the form of burn pits commonly used on overseas bases to get rid of waste.

“Most of the time when I was at Fallujah I didn’t think about any kind of toxic exposure risk,” she said. “I knew we had a burn pit. I knew when we cleaned out our AC unit it was full of black stuff, and we all kind of joked that’s what we’re breathing, isn’t that gross.”

It’s estimated at least 230 burn pits were used at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, using jet fuel to ignite the waste.

“Knowing that when you burn jet fuel, when you burn plastics, when you burn computers, when you burn hazardous materials that you have hundreds of toxic chemicals that can be inhaled into a person’s body,” said Congressman Raul Ruiz, D-CA, who’s also a doctor.

“As a physician, I was irate that this self-inflicted wound by the Department of Defense employing these burn pits, which, by the way, open fires and burn pits are illegal in the United States for exactly the reasons that they are hazardous to individuals health,” Rep. Ruiz said.

Rep. Ruiz began working on burn pit legislation after hearing the story of Jennifer Kepner, an Air Force veteran in his district, who battled pancreatic cancer. He helped her fight the Veterans Administration for benefits before she died in 2017.

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“Right now the VA puts the burden of proof on the veterans,” said Rep. Ruiz of the claims process. “Right now, we have too many veterans that are dying because of our military self-inflicted wounds,” he continued.

Rep. Ruiz has been working on bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would make it easier for veterans to access benefits by including cancers among the illnesses that are considered to have a presumed link to burn pits. Currently, veterans are required to prove a direct service connection.

Hendricks Thomas, who also has a doctorate in health care, says it took her three years to finally get her claim approved after it was initially denied.

“There is a true cost to war, when you send people to war there is a true cost to that,” she said. “Part of it is handling the veterans benefits and health care when people come home, and it’s our responsibility as a country that we have these exposure risks in Iraq and Afghanistan and take care of the people coming home sick because of that.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs said from June 2007 through September 30, 2021, nearly 15,000 veterans claimed conditions specifically related to burn pit exposure.

The VA said it’s identified over 600 veterans who deployed during recent wars who have filed a claim for military service-connected breast cancer. Of those claims, the VA said around 56% were granted for the population who deployed.

CBS News requested statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but the agency could not provide overall cancer claim approval stats by our filing deadline.

While the VA said studies have not found increased rates of breast cancer, other research has shown incidents of breast cancer among female service members is 20 to 40 percent higher, compared to the civilian population.

“I think that the VA and the DOD need to, in good faith, do some research on incidence rates of breast cancer in women veterans and admit that we have this problem right now,” said Hendricks Thomas. “My hope would be that we take care of the women veterans who need our care and our support, and they need it at a younger age than their civilian counterparts.”

The VA has set up a burn pit registry to track the issue of burn pit exposure:

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Link to file claim: Team