Helping troops exposed to toxins must be a top priority in 2020, veterans tell Congress

Photo credit Department of Veterans Affairs

From Agent Orange to burn pits and black ooze, veterans of every generation have their signature toxic exposure. 

For as long as the United States Armed Forces have existed, those that wear the uniform have suffered toxic exposures of some kind. 

Vietnam veterans have spent decades fighting for recognition of their exposure, many dying while they waited. Some are still waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand benefits to more diseases linked to the toxic herbicide, Agent Orange. 

Meanwhile, veterans of later conflicts, including Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, are looking at the suffering of the generations before them with trepidation -- will they, too, have to wait decades for help? 

Veteran service organizations representing millions of former American troops have lined up in recent weeks to testify before Congress about just that. It’s their annual opportunity to share what they believe lawmakers’ 2020 priorities should be. 

All of the major national VSOs made toxic exposure a top priority, several making it their first priority. 

“There are still too many veterans, particularly Vietnam veterans, waiting for their toxic exposure to be recognized,” said Disabled American Veterans National Commander Stephen Whitehead, after sharing his own experience with burn pits in Iraq.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander in Chief William “Doc” Schmitz told Congress that anyone who has worn a uniform of the United States military should receive care for injuries or illnesses they experienced in service.

“They faithfully serve our country with an implicit understanding that any health conditions arising in service or resulting therefrom will be treated by the (VA),” he said. “The obligations of this agreement are no less binding when a veteran has a health condition related to an airborne hazard, a toxic exposure or the environment in which that individual served.” 

In the last century, veterans returned home from war with an array of unexplained health conditions they, their families and their doctors link to toxic exposure during service, Schmitz said.

“‘Toxic exposure’ has become synonymous with military service,” he said. “It is time for Congress to change the framework through which VA benefits are granted for individuals with conditions associated with toxic exposures and environmental hazards.” 

Wounded Warrior Project CEO Michael Linnington told Congress that more than 70 percent of veterans his group surveyed said they were exposed to toxins. Of the Wounded Warriors in poor health, Linnington said nearly 90 percent said they were exposed to environmental hazards, including chemical warfare agents, radiation and burn pits.

And only fewer than 10 percent are being treated at VA for their exposures, which Linnington said could be caused “by a lack of communication with veterans on this topic.” 

“Each day it seems new exposures, illnesses and diseases are coming to light while in the background, VA struggles,” said Commander Rene Campos of the Military Officers Association of America. “If left up to the VA and DoD, service members, veterans and their families will fight and suffer extreme health and financial hardships like Vietnam veterans have endured these many long decades.” 

Several groups focused on VA’s delay in deciding whether to expand benefits to cover four more Agent Orange-linked diseases: hypertension, hypothyroidism, Parkinson’s-like symptoms and bladder cancer.

“Delayed action by the VA is causing additional, needless suffering,” Campos said.

Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan told lawmakers veterans are afraid of the long-reaching effects of their exposures and encouraged research into how they may affect veterans’ children and grandchildren.

“We fear the epigenetic impact of our exposures on those we love the most,” he said. 

While there has been some progress in the form of voluntary registries to try to track the exposed, and legislation aiming to address some aspects of exposure, VSOs said it’s not enough. 

“The work is far from over,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “In 2020 we will continue to drive support to those who suffer injuries from burn pits and other toxic exposures.” 

“The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs maintain that any ill effects from exposure to burn pits is temporary and will pass once the military member is removed from the area,” Jewish War Veterans National Commander Harvey Weiner said. “However, these denials have a familiar ring to them in the minds of the Vietnam veterans and their issues with the military’s denial of any ill effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides.”

A coalition of 25 veteran and military organizations have banded together to tackle the issue -- the Toxic Exposures in the American Military (TEAM). WWP heads up the TEAM, whose efforts “are focused on treating service members and veterans before they become critically ill through early identification and better research,” Linnington told lawmakers.

The VSOs made recommendations to Congress for how to begin tackling the issue, including: 

  • Form a commission independent from the Defense Department or VA to identify exposures in military service, then study them;
  • Fund and support additional research to provide solid evidence of exposures and the harm they cause; 
  • Require DoD and VA to assess troops and veterans for potential harm caused by exposures;
  • Require DoD and VA to work together to keep a record of exposures;
  • Give veterans access to their own exposure records;
  • Require VA to expand benefits to veterans who have been exposed;
  • Allow surviving family members to add their veterans to exposure registries. 

Read the Connecting Vets Toxic Inferno series:


Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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