Hope Yen, Associated Press 10:41 p.m. MT June 21, 2017
WASHINGTON (AP) — The
Department of Veterans Affairs was scolded by both parties over its
budget Wednesday as lawmakers scurried to find a fix to an unexpected
shortfall of more than $1 billion that would threaten medical care for
thousands of veterans in the coming months. Under repeated questioning,
VA Secretary David Shulkin acknowledged the department may need
"We would like to work with you," Shulkin told a Senate appropriations panel. "We need to do this quickly."
At the hearing, lawmakers
pressed Shulkin about the department's financial management after it
significantly underestimated costs for its Choice program, which offers
veterans federally paid medical care outside the VA. Several questioned
Shulkin's claim that the VA can fill the budget gap simply by shifting
funds — without an emergency infusion of new money — without hurting
stewardship of funds is the real issue at hand," said Sen. Jerry Moran,
R-Kan., chair of the Appropriations panel overseeing the VA. He faulted
VA for a "precarious situation" requiring a congressional bailout.
unexpectedly high demand for Choice and defended President Donald
Trump's 2018 budget request as adequate, but allowed that more money may
projections, we have to do better," he said. "We do not want to see
veterans impacted at all by our inability to manage budgets."
Shulkin made the surprise
revelation last week, urgently asking Congress for help. He said VA
needed legal authority to shift money from other VA programs.
His disclosure came just
weeks after lawmakers were still being assured that Choice was under
budget, with $1.1 billion estimated to be left over on Aug. 7. Shulkin
now says that money will dry up by mid-August. He cited excessive use of
Choice beyond its original intent of using private doctors only when
veterans must wait more than 30 days for a VA appointment or drive more
than 40 miles to a facility.
Skeptical senators on Wednesday signaled they may need to move forward on a financial bailout.
In a letter Wednesday to
the VA, Moran joined three other GOP senators, including John McCain, in
demanding more detailed information from VA on what fix is needed.
appropriates emergency funding to continue the Veterans Choice Program,
hundreds of thousands of veterans who now rely on the Choice Card will
be sent back to a VA that cannot effectively manage or coordinate their
care," the senators said. "We cannot send our veterans back to the
pre-scandal days in which veterans were subjected to unacceptable
VA is already instructing
its medical centers to limit the number of veterans sent to private
doctors. Some veterans were being sent to Defense Department hospitals,
VA facilities located farther away, or other alternative locations "when
care is not offered in VA." It also was asking field offices to hold
off on spending for certain medical equipment to help cover costs.
on VA oversight committees have also sharply criticized the proposed
2018 budget. Shulkin, for instance, says he intends to tap other parts
of the VA budget to cover the shortfall, including $620 million in
carryover money that had been designated for use in the next fiscal year
beginning Oct. 1.
The budget proposal also
seeks to cover rising costs of Choice in part by reducing disability
benefits for thousands of veterans once they reach retirement age,
drawing an outcry from major veterans' organizations who said veterans
heavily rely on the payments.
Shulkin has since backed off the plan to reduce disability benefits but has not indicated what other areas may be cut.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Shulkin that it sure sounded like VA needed money.
"You're defending this
budget, but your job is to defend veterans," she said. "It seems to me
if the administration makes the request, it will be better served."
The VA's faulty budget
estimates were a primary reason that Congress passed legislation in
March to extend the Choice program beyond its Aug. 7 expiration date
until the money ran out, which VA said would happen early next year. At
the bill-signing ceremony with veterans' groups, Trump said the
legislation would ensure veterans will continue to be able to see "the
doctor of their choice."
The department is now more closely restricting use of Choice to its 30-day, 40-mile requirements.
The unexpectedly high
Choice costs are also raising questions about the amount of money needed
in future years as VA seeks to expand the program.
Earlier this month,
Shulkin described the outlines of an overhaul, dubbed Veterans CARE,
which would replace Choice and its 30-day, 40-mile restrictions to give
veterans even wider access to private doctors. He is asking Congress to
approve that plan by this fall.
WASHINGTON — Mike and Sarah Verardo had a reason to be angry with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Verardo, a retired Army sergeant who volunteered for the infantry,
stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010 and
lost his left leg. He spent three years in military hospitals and
returned home in 2013. When transferred to VA care, he waited 57 days
for his prosthetic to be repaired, with no backup, and even longer for a
neurological appointment, Sarah Verardo said.
“The buck kept getting passed,” she said. “I was very frustrated.”
year, the Verardos heard something in then-candidate Donald Trump’s
campaign message that resonated with them. He promised to fire “corrupt”
and “incompetent” VA workers who “let our veterans down.”
Verardos sat in a VIP box with Trump and his family during the
Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July. They were
featured in a New York Times story about veterans who supported Trump,
and they stood beside Trump in April when he signed an executive order
creating a new office in the VA aiming to find and remove bad workers.
planning to stand beside Trump again -- as early as this week -- when
he signs a bill into law creating more repercussions and a faster firing
process for VA employees.
To the Verardos, the moment will signal a promise kept.
been fighting for VA reform and accountability, and we feel that it was
championed under candidate Trump. We got to know him, his family, and
learned how important VA reform was to him,” Sarah Verardo said. “We are
really excited. I’m so relieved and glad to see this.”
three years of attempting to pass similar legislation, Congress sent
the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 to Trump
on June 13.
many veterans and other supporters of the bill said it will serve to
root out poor-performing employees and a perceived culture of corruption
in the department, which is the government’s second-largest with
approximately 350,000 people on its payroll.
More than a dozen large veterans groups spoke in support of the bill.
the current disciplinary process, it takes an average 51 days to remove
an employee, largely due to a 30-day notice period, Shulkin said.
legislation would cut the 30-day advance notice to 10 days. It would
also speed up the process that employees use to appeal any disciplinary
action against them. It lessens the evidentiary standards required to
fire an employee and it allows the VA secretary to recoup bonuses and
relocation expenses in certain instances.
also allows the VA secretary to directly appoint directors to lead VA
hospitals and integrated service networks, instead of going through
lengthy hiring processes.
several iterations over the years, the final bill was a compromise
between Republicans, who wanted a swift-as-possible firing process, and
Democrats, who wanted to maintain more federal workforce protections.
Democrats and Republicans celebrated its passage. Federal unions, however, remain worried.
David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government
Employees, a federal union representing about 220,000 VA employees, has
said federal public servants are “under constant attack.”
At past hearings, he told lawmakers that the new firing process could lead to at-will removal of VA employees and dampen morale.
has argued against those claims and he said the bill was a necessary
fix to a “broken” system that has delayed disciplinary action.
new authorities in the accountability legislation will accompany a new
policy that Shulkin put in place to punish employees for drug diversion,
The Associated Press reported.
told reporters last month there were 1,500 VA employees who had
received notice of their termination but were still on the payroll
because of the slow firing process. Of those employees, 300 are pending
cases of misconduct involving drug theft, according to The AP report.
AP wrote Shulkin issued a new zero tolerance policy for drug theft and
was taking steps to remove employees found to have diverted drugs.
Tuesday, a former physician at the VA hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.,
was arrested on 15 counts of drug diversion. Daniel J. Bochicchio, 59,
allegedly stole fentanyl, a synthetic pain medication, from the hospital
by fraudulently using patient information from January to March of this
year, according to a release from the Department of Justice. He was
relieved from his duties earlier this month.
asking for Congress to grant him more firing authority, Shulkin used
other examples of delays in firing “bad apples,” including a Houston
psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography in front of a patient.
The VA also had to let an employee in Memphis, Tenn., return to work
last month after she was convicted of her third
driving-while-intoxicated charge and spent 60 days in jail. And attempts
to fire several VA senior executives have been overturned or found
is expected to sign the bill as early as this week. When Congress
passed the legislation June 13, Trump tweeted it was “GREAT news for
veterans!” and “I look forward to signing it!”
their negative experiences with the VA, Mike and Sarah Verardo
established the group Square Deal for Vets to advocate for VA reform,
primarily the new accountability rules. Now that the bill is on Trump’s
desk, the couple plans to watch over the implementation process to
ensure its being used consistently across the VA system, Sarah Verardo
great it’s going to be signed. It’s a huge step in the right direction,
but we know that the implementation won’t happen overnight so we need
to be vigilant watchdogs,” she said. “I’m very hopeful it’s going to be a
new day at the VA.”
[EDITOR’S NOTE, Video at link which is far more extensive than the quoted portions.]
Alex Lockie, Business Insider
on June 19, 2017
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Thursday by Rep. Tim Ryan of the House Appropriations Committee to
explain why the US doesn’t just go to war to stop North Korea from
developing the capability to hit the US, Secretary of Defense James
Mattis painted a grim scenario.
suggest that we will win,” Mattis said. “It will be a war more serious
in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953.
involve the massive shelling of an ally’s capital, which is one of the
most densely packed cities on earth,” Mattis said of Seoul, South Korea,
which boasts a metro-area population of 25 million.
“It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” Mattis said, but “we would win at great cost.”
explained that because the threat from North Korea loomed so large and a
military confrontation would destroy so much, he, President Donald
Trump, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had all made a peaceful
solution a top priority.
Mattis said the topic of North Korea dominated Trump’s meeting in April
with President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only ally, and that
the US intended to make China understand that “North Korea today is a
strategic burden, not a strategic asset.”
China argues it
has limited influence on Pyongyang, but as one expert explained,
Beijing could at any moment cripple North Korea through trade means, forcing it to come to the negotiating table.
clear that the US was nearing the end of its rope in dealing with North
Korea, saying: “We’re exhausting all possible diplomatic efforts in this
North Korea recently taunted Trump by saying it was capable of hitting New York with a nuclear missile, but Mattis said a war today would hurt our Asian allies.
“It would be a
serious, a catastrophic war, especially for innocent people in some of
our allied countries, to include Japan most likely,” Mattis said.
By: Shawn Snow, June 21, 2017 (Photo Credit: Cpl. Alejandro Pena/Marine Corps)
— The Pentagon is under fire for spending nearly $28 million procuring
camouflage uniforms for the Afghan army, gear suited for environments so
rare they account for just 2 percent of Afghanistan's countryside,
according to a new watchdog report.
The Defense Department organization overseeing efforts to train and
equip Afghan forces supervised selection and design of the new
proprietary woodland camouflage pattern without proper testing and
assessment, according to the report published Wednesday by the Special
Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Woodland Battle Dress Uniform worn by Afghan commandos (U.S. Air Force
photo by Staff Sgt. Dustin Payne) Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by
Staff Sgt. Dustin Payne
For years, Afghan conventional forces and elite commandos have fielded
the U.S. Army’s woodland pattern utility uniforms. In 2007, the Afghan
Defense Ministry embarked on a quest to design new uniforms to counter
efforts by the Taliban and militants battling government forces to
counterfeit the clothing.
The new uniform was designed in similar fashion to the current uniform
worn by the U.S. Army, called the Army Combat Uniform, but at a much
higher cost, the inspector general determined.
used by ANA conventional forces with Spec4ce Forest Uniform pattern.
(Defense Department photo by Pfc. David Devich) Photo Credit: Defense
Department photo by Pfc. David Devich
According to the report, the HyperStealth’s Spec4ce Forest camouflage
pattern was chosen by the then-Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim
Wardak — because he liked what he saw while browsing a website.
“This is just simply stupid on its face. We wasted $28 million of
taxpayers’ money in the name of fashion, because the defense minister
thought that that pattern was pretty. So if he thought pink or
chartreuse was it, would we have done that?” said John Sopko, the
inspector general, in an interview with USA Today.
Picking uniform patterns for specific environments requires formal
testing and evaluation, a process that can be a “an extremely fussy and
demanding experimental design problem,” said Dr. Timothy O’Neill,
creator of the camouflage pattern which served as the basis for the Army
Combat Uniform. “Desert designs don’t work well in woodland areas and
woodland patterns perform poorly in the desert.”
U.S. government already had the rights to multiple camouflage pattern
schemes that could have been provided to the Afghan army at no cost.
Furthermore, the “DOD was unable to provide documentation demonstrating
that the Spec4ce Forest specification was essential to the U.S.
government’s requirement, or documentation justifying and approving the
Spec4ce Forest requirement in the ANA uniform specification,” the report
Propriety uniforms cost significantly more to produce because vendors
seeking to supply the Afghan military with its uniform needs are
required to “purchase pre-patterned material, or obtain the rights to
use the proprietary pattern from HyperStealth or an authorized licensee,
according to the report.
The new uniforms now cost 40 percent to 43 percent more at about $45 to $80 per set.
Sopko has recommended conducting a cost-benefit analysis and consider
changing the Afghan camouflage uniforms, which could save taxpayers $70
million over the next 10 years.
for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl want to ask potential jurors in a
court-martial for their views on President Trump and whether they voted
for him, according to news reports Wednesday.
pretrial hearing Wednesday, Berdahl's lawyers submitted the questions
to the judge in the case, out of concern that jurors may be swayed by
negative comments Trump made in the presidential campaign about the
principal issue has to do with ensuring we are able to identify people
who have been nominated to be on the court-martial panel — the jury —
who are not in a position to render an impartial judgment," said Eugene
Fidell, Bergdahl's lead attorney, as first reported
by Stars and Stripes. "Key to that is the whole set of issues
surrounding President Trump's outrageous comments throughout the course
of his successful campaign for the White House."
Bergdahl walked off his post in Afghanistan
in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban, who held him for almost five
years before releasing him. He was charged in 2015 with desertion and
misbehavior before the enemy, the latter of which carries a potential
life imprisonment sentence. Bergdahl has yet to enter a plea to the
the campaign, Trump called Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" and
criticized former President Barack Obama's decision to exchange five
Guantanamo Bay detainees for the soldier's freedom.
judge in Bergdahl's case, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, called Trump's
statements "disturbing" and potentially "problematic." But, according to
Stars and Stripes, Nance declined to dismiss the case over them,
instead allowing defense attorneys to ask prospective jurors questions
about potential influence the president's comments might have on them.
argued some of the questions submitted by Bergdahl's lawyers went too
far and should not ask about personal politics.
Nance said he would decide which questions he would permit before the end of next week.
on June 20, 2017
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The Iraq War killed former Minnesota Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Amie Muller. It just took a decade to do it.
at least, is how Muller’s family and friends see it. The 36-year-old’s
pancreatic cancer, they believe, was caused by exposure to the massive
burn pit used to dispose of waste at Joint Base Balad, 40 miles north of
Baghdad. Her doctors said there was a strong possibility the burn pit
was to blame, but no way to definitively prove a link with the available
Regardless, a young mother of three died in February from a disease that typically is diagnosed at age 71.
“It makes me really mad,” Muller told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
in June 2016, a month after learning she had Stage III pancreatic
cancer. “I inhaled that stuff all day, all night. Everything that they
burned there is illegal to burn in America. That tells you something.”
was a beautiful person whose “nature was to care about others,” her
friend Julie Tomaska told Task & Purpose. “She loved animals, loved
people. On deployment, she would draw out the misfits, because she was
an ear and a shoulder, listening without judgment.”
as her life came to an end, Muller sought to prevent others from
suffering a similar fate. Despite being in physical pain from the
cancer, and agonizing over the thought of leaving her children without a
mom, she established a foundation
with her husband, Brian Muller, to support military families fighting
pancreatic cancer. She also became a voice for veterans who believe that
the modern battlefield, with its burn pits, fine dust, and metal-laden
soil, is an environmental killer.
Muller served this country with distinction, and we owe her our
gratitude,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in a
statement following Muller’s death on Feb. 18. “My heart goes out to her
family and friends.”
had gotten to know Muller during her illness, and just 10 days before
Muller died, the senator teamed up with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of
North Carolina to sponsor legislation that would require the VA to
establish a center of excellence to study and improve the diagnosis and
treatment of burn pit-related illnesses.
are an increasing number of our brave men and women returning home from
Iraq and Afghanistan citing illnesses potentially caused by burn pits
exposure,” Klobuchar said. “I am going to keep fighting so that these
veterans receive the care and support they need.”
Tillis: “This bipartisan bill is the beginning of that commitment,
providing resources to the VA to study the health effects caused by the
burn pits and to provide treatment to veterans who became sick after
always felt like no matter what shift you worked, the wind always
switched and followed you, so it was there when you were at work, it was
there in your tents. There was no escaping it.”
date, 34 members of the House and Senate have added their names to the
Senate bill, S. 319, Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits, and its
companion House bill, H.R. 1279, in support.
have long reported health issues thought to be related to combat
deployments, and Congress has discussed the associated health risks at
30 hearings since 2009. In 2013, the legislators even ordered the VA to
establish a registry to track veterans who believe they are sick as a
result of exposure to burn pits or other environmental factors in Iraq
as with everything involving burn pits and deployment-related health
conditions — from the lack of air quality data to the dearth of research
on potential health consequences and even questions over who is
responsible for what was burned — VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry has drawn its share of criticism.
More than 174,200 veterans have signed onto the registry, and 104,999 have completed its lengthy questionnaire. But in a report released in February,
the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded
that the project had “limited value for improving individual patient
care.” The report found flaws in the registry’s reliance on volunteer
participation and self-reporting and criticized it for having poorly
written questions. It also called into question the lengthy lengthy
personal and lifestyle questionnaire prior to the health questions that
the National Academies panel said may contribute to the high
and Tomaska both signed up, but Tomaska, who has a PhD in public
health, said she could sense that the survey would be of little use to
researchers. “They asked a lot about prior exposures, overall health and
personal habits and not a lot of specifics about deployment … it looks
like they created it intentionally to have flaws. The VA never intended
for it to be anything of value,” Tomaska said.
problem is that the registry only allows veterans to complete the form —
not spouses or family members of those who have died, says Rosie
Torres, who co-founded the advocacy group BurnPits 360 with her husband, retired Army Capt. LeRoy Torres.
know of at least 5,000 cases that aren’t in there because the veteran
either died or there are reporting restrictions,” Torres told Task &
their peak, burn pits numbered 22 in Iraq and 251 in Afghanistan. In
2009, after concerns were raised about their potential health
consequences, the Defense Department issued a directive requiring any
base with more than 100 U.S. troops assigned for more than 90 days to
have a waste disposal alternative.
But that directive was routinely ignored, and through early 2016, burn pits remained a commonly used method for waste disposal.
is indefensible that U.S. military personnel, who are already at risk
of serious injury and death when fighting the enemy, were put at further
risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open air
burn pits,” the special inspector general for Afghanistan
reconstruction, John Sopko, wrote in late 2015 after discovering that a
number of incinerators built by the U.S. government were never used and
that burn pits remained in operation.
burn pit at Balad, the base where Muller worked as a videographer for
several months in 2005 and 2007, covered 10 acres and gobbled up more
than 240 tons of trash a day. Everything at the sprawling base went into
the pit: computer parts, animal carcasses, medical waste (including
body parts), lithium ion batteries, furniture, plastic bottles,
insecticide canisters, DEET-soaked tents, human excrement, plastic
drums, food waste, even whole vehicles — all of it dumped, soaked in
JP-8 and lit afire.
pit released large clouds of black smoke that drifted across runways
and airfields, over and through tents, across the desert, often leaving
fine, green-black soot on everything. “Iraqi talcum powder,” some troops
always felt like no matter what shift you worked, the wind always
switched and followed you, so it was there when you were at work, it was
there in your tents. There was no escaping it,” recalled Tomaska, who
deployed with Muller and has her own deployment-related health problems.
She calls it “The Balad Cough.” Others speak of “The Iraqi Crud.”
the burn pits cause their illnesses? Nobody knows for sure. At this
point, the research that might prove a connection — or disprove one —
has yet to be conducted.
it is known that burning plastics and other industrial waste can
release cancer causing dioxins and volatile chemicals into the air, the Institute of Medicine, in 2011,
reviewed all available reports on burn pit utilization and exposure to
combustibles in civilian occupations and concluded that while there was
evidence that exposure could cause short-term, reduced lung function,
the panel lacked the data or research needed to draw any conclusions
about long-term respiratory health consequences. Moreover, the IOM found
“inadequate or insufficient evidence” of any relation between burn pit
exposure, cancer, respiratory disease and neurological diseases.
six-year-old report continues to be the basis for the VA’s ongoing
refusal to grant disability compensation for many illnesses in post-9/11
troops who lived and worked near burn pits.
disheartening,” Tomaska said. “It’s like we’ll have to wait another 10
years to prove connection and causation. Look how long it took Agent
Orange vets — 20, 30 years.”
Torres calls it the “war that followed us home.” A former marathon
runner, he can no longer roughhouse with the kids or cross a parking lot
without getting winded. He was finally diagnosed last year with
constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare, irreversible scarring of the lungs.
returning from Iraq, I have had over 225 medical visits and was
hospitalized immediately after returning from war,” Torres said while
testifying before the Texas state legislature in March. “As a man, a
husband and father I have felt deprived of my dignity honor and health.”
inhaled that stuff all day, all night. Everything that they burned
there is illegal to burn in America. That tells you something.”
troops began reporting health symptoms nearly the moment they set foot
in the Iraqi desert, and in Afghanistan, near large installations such
as Bagram Air Base and Kandahar Airfield, where burn pits were
established to dispose of trash.
a week of being in theatre, members of Tomaska and Muller’s unit, the
public affairs shop of the 148th Fighter Wing, hacked up black phlegm.
Their noses ran and eyes swelled. They wheezed, developed asthma and
bronchitis and couldn’t catch their breath. They had headaches and skin
infections. They were given Zithromax and sent back to work. But despite
efforts to keep their living and work environments clean, they
constantly battled the soot, not to mention the driving sand and
particles kicked up by dust storms.
first, returning service members reported symptoms of asthma and
difficulty taking deep breaths, despite testing that showed they had
normal lung function. A pulmonologist at Vanderbilt University Medical
Center, Dr. Bob Miller, suspected constrictive bronchiolitis and started
testing for it, conducting lung biopsies in soldiers from Fort
Campbell, Kentucky, who had responded to a sulfur mine fire at
Al-Mishraq in 2003. Later, other troops, including those who worked near
burn pits, were diagnosed with the condition. According to the VA’s
Burn Pit Registry, 1,056 post-9/11 troops say they now have the disease.
VA does not currently list constrictive bronchiolitis as presumed to be
service-connected, but troops who were at the sulfur mine fire and who
apply for VA disability compensation are more likely to be reviewed
positively, as the Defense Department has ruled the condition is
“plausibly associated” with the mine fire.
issues, however, are far from the only environmental health threat that
troops may have faced. In 2006, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, a
bioenvironmental flight commander at Joint Base Balad, said
the pits represented an “acute health hazard for individuals.” He cited
a number of cancer causing agents, including benzene, formaldehyde and
xylene, in the toxic clouds, as cause for concern.
the age of 44, Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Bowman passed away after an
18-month battle with cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer. His wife,
Coleen Bowman, said she’s not sure whether to blame the burn pits or
some other environmental source, such as toxins stirred up each time her
husband’s Stryker vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device or a
round. Of her husband’s platoon of 32 men, more than a third have “some
strange illness,” she told us, running through the list: “Crohn’s
disease, liver issues, follicular lymphoma, unexplained tumors, brain
cancer … ”
to the cause, Bowman insisted, “It’s environmental. Whatever
environment it was, we could argue all day long, but I hardly think they
got it at Fort Lewis, Wash.”
exact number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with uncommon cancers,
respiratory illnesses or chronic conditions is unknown. The VA only
keeps data on patients who have been diagnosed and treated at VA health
centers. According to their numbers, of the 1.22 million Operation Iraqi
Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and New Dawn veterans who have used VA
health care at some point from 2002 to early 2015, 16,304 were diagnosed
with cancer, roughly a third with non-melanoma skin cancer, 16% with
prostate cancer, another 10% with melanoma, 8% with testicular cancer
and the remainder with lymphoid, colon, thyroid, breast and undetermined
to data provided to Task & Purpose by the VA, the cancer rates for
Iraq and Afghanistan treated at VA hospitals, the rates are actually
lower than among civilians across the board. However, those numbers may
be misleading, since cancers often take many years to develop.
this data only includes post-9/11 veterans who have used VA health care
at least once during the time frame and were either diagnosed or
treated by VA, explained Bobbi Hauptman, a public affairs specialist
with the Veterans Health Administration. “VA continues to monitor health
status of the exposed population to assess incidence and prevalence of
disease for evidence of increased risk of health outcomes that may be
associated with service related exposures.”
Defense Health Agency’s Armed Forces Health Surveillance branch
reviewed cancer diagnoses among active-duty and reserve personnel from
2005 to 2014 and found “no specific increasing or decreasing trends.”
According to the AFHS, 8,973 troops were diagnosed with cancer, and
1,054 died from the disease, during the time frame, the most prevalent,
by incidence rate, being female breast cancer, followed by testicular
cancer, malignant melanoma, prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
the DoD figures do not capture the whole story either. Many veterans,
like former Army Staff Sgt. Steven Ochs, who served three tours in Iraq
from 2005 to 2007, and Matt Bumpus, who served in Iraq in 2003, died in
civilian hospitals, both of acute myeloid leukemia, according to Ochs’
sister, Stacy Pennington, one of the first people to testify in front of
Congress — in 2009 — about the hazards of burn pits.
are aware of hundreds more suffering similar ailments,” Pennington
said, adding that “these men are casualties of war,” and their military
records should reflect that.
Those who have signed on to the VA’s burn pit registry represent
6% of the 2.7 million troops who have served in the region since 2001,
slightly more than half the number diagnosed with a traumatic brain
injury, including concussions. In terms of sheer numbers, head injuries
outpaced all other wounds and injuries in theatre, and as a result, the
condition has received a lion’s share of research, diagnosis and
treatment funding – dollars that will shed light on a condition that
affects not only military personnel but 1.7 million Americans every year.
pits and combat-zone environmental health hazards have received far
less attention. In 2015, Congress added funding to the Defense
Department budget to study burn pits, in a program known as the
Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. But burn pits were
dropped from the program a year later.
May 30, Klobuchar and Tillis wrote a letter to the chairman of the
Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of
Mississippi asking that burn pits be added back into the mix. A decision
will come later this year as Congress deliberates the fiscal 2018
VA is conducting several long term studies on post-9/11 veterans, but
nothing specifically geared toward burn pit exposure. However, a
civilian scientist, Dr. Anthony Szema, a former assistant professor at
Stony Brook School of Medicine, recently conducted research that
detected fine heavy metal particles in the lungs of some service
members, one possible explanation for their respiratory problems,
fatigue, and illnesses. He also coined the phrase “Iraq Afghanistan War
“I know of at least 5,000 cases that aren’t in there because the veteran either died or there are reporting restrictions.”
“Trace metals (including titanium), calcium and silicon are present,” Szema wrote in the Journal of Environmental and Occupational Medicine in 2014.
“Respirable Iraq dust leads to lung inflammation in mice similar to
that seen in patients, particularly regarding polarizable crystals
which, appear to be titanium.”
serving as chairman of medical sciences and biotechnology at the Center
for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode
Island, Navy Capt. Mark Lyles, now retired, found that tiny
micro-particles of dust in Iraq and Kuwait contain 37 metals, and 147
types of bacteria and disease-spreading fungi, which may contribute to
Szema and Lyles have pressed the DoD and the VA to conduct more
research on the extent of exposure and possible health consequences. The
Government Accountability Office also believes the Defense Department
should be doing more. In September, GAO issued a report saying
it had recommended the Pentagon study the long-term health effects of
burn pits in 2011, but years later, there has been little progress.
A bulldozer tries to maneuver refuse into the burn pit at Balad, Iraq, Sept. 24, 2004.
This year, Amnesty International USA
also has taken up the cause, helping Burn Pits 360 lobby legislators
starting this spring. Naureen Shah, senior director for campaigns with
AI USA, said the lack of research and information dissemination violates
a basic human right — the right to life. “I am astounded when I talk to
congressional staff and no one has raised this with them,” Shah told
Task & Purpose. “There is a glaring deficiency that DoD has ignored
the health of service members. The government has a responsibility to
take care of these people.”
who still continues to serve in the Air National Guard, agreed. She
misses the great friend she spoke with every day for the past 12 years, a
smiling jewel of a person who created videos for military families
facing loss and designed Minnesota’s Gold Star Family license plate.
promised Amie I wouldn’t stop talking about talking about this,”
Tomaska said. “It’s a huge loss and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”