SARASOTA — U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan wants to help expand health coverage for veterans exposed to burn pits during recent wars.

Buchanan added a statement about the death of Sarasota County Sheriff’s Pilot Stephen Shull, who died Nov. 1 after fighting metastatic cancer.

Shull, of Nokomis, was a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan deployments while a pilot in the U.S. Army. He was a warrant officer who had been in the area of burn pits.

“I’m deeply saddened by the death of Stephen Shull, who served our country overseas and later protected our community here at home,” Buchanan said in a news release. “He is one of the many veterans who suffered from critical health problems after being exposed to toxic burn pits. Our country needs to learn from the tragic mistakes in long denying health coverage to Vietnam veterans and do the right thing.”

Shull’s funeral Mass and burial is Thursday in largely private ceremonies in Venice and at Sarasota National Cemetery.

The Longboat Key-based congressman said he will co-sponsor the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act.

The news release states burn pits were “primarily associated with Iraq and Afghanistan,” but have been used in other countries where the U.S. military has deployed, including Syria, Sudan and Kyrgyzstan.

“The VA currently doesn’t recognize any presumptive conditions to provide benefits for airborne hazards such as burn pit exposure and requires veterans to prove their illnesses were caused by the exposure,” it said.

“More than 210,000 people have filed with the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (since 2004) ... Over the past 13 years more than 75% of all claims for burn pit exposure were denied by the VA.”

The bill hopes to change that.

“The bill would require the VA to provide health benefits to service members exposed to these hazards and who suffer from the added ‘presumptive conditions,’” it said. “Veterans would need to submit evidence of deployment to one of 34 countries where burn pits were used or receipt of a service-medal associated with the Global War on Terror or the Gulf War.”

The bill is being co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and U.S. Rep. Dr. Raul Ruiz (D-California).

Shull’s family has been the focus of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office since his death. A GoFundMe page has been set up at www.gofundme.com/f/shull-family-support.

As of Tuesday, it has raised about $17,320. It hopes to eventually raise $400,000 to help his widow, Kathleen, and their four children.

“We’re hoping that we can give back to him and give him a great funeral and help his family,” Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight said.


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