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VA secretary says vets exposed to toxins may get help

USAFE Airmen prepare for Toxic Trip exercise (Air Force/Released)

A new study into whether military toxic exposures cause cancer and other illnesses could make it easier for veterans to get their medical expenses covered, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary said Monday in Kansas City.

“I think it will, but it will also alleviate a great concern that I’ve had,” Robert Wilkie said after a public forum at the National World War I Museum.

“I’m the son of a combat soldier from Vietnam. My father was severely wounded. I saw what happened when America waited to address Agent Orange. I don’t want that to happen again. I don’t want Agent Orange to happen again.”

Earlier this month, a McClatchy investigation found significant increases in veterans treated for urinary, prostate, liver and blood cancers at VA health care centers from fiscal year 2000 to 2018.

Some military families question whether veterans’ exposure to toxic environments in Iraq and Afghanistan is to blame.

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The VA’s chief research and development officer, Rachel Ramoni, later announced the study. Veterans and veterans’ advocates have spent years trying to get the VA to recognize a connection between toxic exposures and chronic illnesses suffered later.

Some blame exposure to burn pits, where everything from ammunition to tires and human waste were burned. Some suspect radiation from cockpits and firefighting foam.

Currently, the VA denies a direct connection, stating on its website: “At this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits. VA continues to study the health of deployed Veterans.”

The VA has not devoted resources to find out why generations of men and women who served overseas were diagnosed with cancer when they got home, Ramoni said.

“I’ve been speaking a lot with (Vietnam veterans) in particular, and they, I think, for good reason, have been irritated with us as an organization because we have not done a lot of work, especially clinical work on military exposures,” Ramoni said.

‘Not just Vietnam’

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who appeared with Wilkie on Monday, said the new study “is very valuable, and it’s part of legislation that I introduced a number of years ago after meeting particularly with Vietnam veterans.

“But it’s not just Vietnam, it’s toxic exposure all over a long period of time, in lots of battles, lots of theaters around the world. And what we asked the VA to do, and what they told us, was there’s no medical or scientific evidence about this topic, certainly insufficient scientific medical. This is years ago.

“So we asked the National Academy of Sciences to do research to determine what the connection could be between certain illnesses and that toxic exposure.”

Moran also pointed to efforts underway to “get the Department of Defense to be more capable of providing medical records (about) where a person served, what exposure they may have encountered so we can reduce the opposition for the payment of that toxic exposure, because the answer could be, ‘We have no record of your service in an area where there was toxic exposure.’”

Moran said the VA might ultimately be responsible for the care of veterans’ families, too.

“Veterans today are telling us there is evidence in their families about health care problems, challenges that occur in the next generation, in the next generation.

“So ultimately this research is not only to make sure the veteran is compensated, but if there is a connection to health damage to following generations, the VA, the American people may become responsible for another generation of a soldier’s family.”

Other VA issues

Wilkie also said he could offer no update on the case of Dale Farhner, a 66-year-old veteran who was injured during an altercation with Kansas City VA Medical Center police on his way in for medical care May 10, 2018. He was hospitalized and two days later died of a brain hemorrhage.

The VA has declined to release information to Farhner’s family, the media or members of Congress. Three of Farhner’s children filed a wrongful death lawsuit in May.

“Right now it is under investigation. It’s in the U.S. attorney’s hands,” Wilkie said. “I can’t even look at what’s going on because of the status of that. I can say that I’ve been focused in general in making sure that we have the most modern police force. I’ve visited our academy in Little Rock. That is essential for me, to make sure that the 4,000 people we have are properly trained.”

A year ago, the VA’s Office of Inspector General found that the 4,000 police officers who work at the VA’s 139 hospitals operated without much oversight or accountability.

“I will say this: In an era where we are just beginning to grapple with suicide among veterans in a way we haven’t, our VA police have intervened just in the last year almost 300 times to stop a veteran to take his or her life. That to me is a testament of their general ability and empathy.”

Wilkie and Moran visited Kansas City and Topeka on Monday to talk about the department’s efforts to curb suicide and homelessness among the nation’s veterans.

Three years ago, Wilkie said, 400,000 veterans and their families were homeless. That number is down to 40,000, he said.

“We have opened the aperture in a way the federal government never did before,” Wilkie said. “We went to charities, we went to local governments, we went to places that the VA could not go, and we entered into partnerships with these groups and they asked if they could help us take veterans off the street.”

He said two-thirds of the homeless veterans in the country are located between Los Angeles and Seattle, but did not explain why.

“Taking that model, the model we used to attack homelessness, is how we are attacking veteran suicide,” he said, noting that the VA now spends $9.5 billion on mental health programs.

He told of a 69-year-old veteran who took his life recently on the campus of the VA hospital in Cleveland.

“He wasn’t suffering from any mental health issues. He had a nice home, was taking care of his mother,” Wilkie said. “But he was told he faced life-altering surgery. Because of cancer, his left eye was to be removed, his vocal cords were to be removed and so was his jaw. He just decided he wasn’t going to live like that. And he left us a note asking us to take care of his mother.”

Twenty veterans a day take their lives, and about 60 percent of them are outside the VA system. “This is the first time anyone has talked about this on a national level,” he said.

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© 2019 The Kansas City Star