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American Legion News Clips – June 22, 2017

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 emergency funds.
"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 veterans' care.
"The department's 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.
Shulkin cited unexpectedly high demand for Choice and defended President Donald Trump's 2018 budget request as adequate, but allowed that more money may be needed.
"On financial 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.
"Unless Congress 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 wait-times."
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.
Congressional Democrats 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.
Mike 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.”
Last 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.”
The 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.
They’re 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.
“We’ve 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.”
After three years of attempting to pass similar legislation, Congress sent the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 to Trump on June 13.
Shulkin, 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.
Under the current disciplinary process, it takes an average 51 days to remove an employee, largely due to a 30-day notice period, Shulkin said.
The 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.
It also allows the VA secretary to directly appoint directors to lead VA hospitals and integrated service networks, instead of going through lengthy hiring processes.
After 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.
J. 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.
Shulkin has argued against those claims and he said the bill was a necessary fix to a “broken” system that has delayed disciplinary action.
The 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.
Shulkin 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.
The AP wrote Shulkin issued a new zero tolerance policy for drug theft and was taking steps to remove employees found to have diverted drugs.
Just 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.
When 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 unconstitutional.
Trump 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!”
After 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 said.
“It’s 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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Asked on 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.
“I would 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.
“It will 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.”
Mattis 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.
Mattis made 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 regard.”
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)
WASHINGTON — 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.

Uniforms 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.”

The 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 reads.

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.
Attorneys 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.
At a 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 soldier.
"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 charges.
During 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.
The 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.
Prosecutors 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.
That, 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 evidence.
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.”
Muller 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.”
Even 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.
“Amie 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.”
Klobuchar 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.
“There 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.”
Added 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 exposure.”
“It 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.”
To 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.
 Veterans 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 and Afghanistan.
But 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 incompletion rate.
Muller 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.
Another 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.
“I 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 & Purpose.
At 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.
“It 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.
The 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.
The 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 called it.
“It 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.”
Did 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.
Although 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.
The 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.
“It’s 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.”
LeRoy 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.
“Since 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.”
“I inhaled that stuff all day, all night. Everything that they burned there is illegal to burn in America. That tells you something.”
U.S. 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.
Within 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.
At 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.
The 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.
Respiratory 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.
At 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 … ”
As 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.”
The 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 cancer.
According 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.
Moreover, 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.”
The 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.
Still, 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.
“We 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.
Burn 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.
On 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 budget.
The 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 Lung Injury.”
“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.”
While 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 troops’ illnesses.
Both 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.”
Tomaska, 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.
“I 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.”