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‘This generation’s Agent Orange’: How Mass. Rep. John Velis plans to prepare vets for the health impact of burn pits

The city of Westfield honored Robert A. Greenleaf, a city resident and survivor of Pearl Harbor who died in July at the age of 94 with a ceremony at the city's Pearl Harbor Memorial in Kane/Wojkiewicz Park. At the podium is State Representative John Velis. (Don Treeger/Staff-Shot/TNS)
February 03, 2020

After his first deployment to Afghanistan, John Velis received a piece of paper notifying him about a registry for service members and veterans who had been exposed to chemicals, pollution and waste that’s thrown into open burn pits.

Velis recalled struggling to catch his breath during his physical fitness test in Kabul, but he stuffed the paper in his pocket and forgot about it until years later, after he returned from his second deployment to the Middle Eastern nation.

He added his name to the registry, but he said he’s worried about veterans who weren’t given enough information about the registry and could develop unresolved health problems in the future. The Westfield Democrat — who described open burn pits as this generation’s Agent Orange — introduced a bill that would require state officials to provide more information and contact potentially affected veterans about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit registry.

“In a perfect world, the federal government would just say, ‘OK, we’re not going to replicate what our Vietnam vets had to go through with Agent Orange, we’re going to do right by the current days of generations of veterans, and we’re just going to err on the side of them,” Velis, who first enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2011, told MassLive in an interview.

He added, “What I can do right now as a Massachusetts lawmaker is everything in my power to try to ensure that Massachusetts veterans are registered in the national registry.”

Paint, metal, human feces and other waste was set on fire in open burn pits overseas. Toxins released in the smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. The VA said recent studies do not show evidence of long-term health problems associated with exposure to toxins released in open burn pits, but the Department of Defense has since acknowledged the risks of burn pits, according to the Military Times.

Still, the department continues to operate a handful of open burn pits. Veterans and advocates say health effects to chemical exposure may not be known or diagnosed until years, perhaps decades, after exposure.

Comedian Jon Stewart recently met with members of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military coalition in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss how to get service members exposed to toxins from burn pits medical care.

“Quite frankly, this is not just about burn pits — it’s about the way we go to war as a country,” Stewart said in a statement. “We always have money to make war. We need to always have money to take care of what happens to people who are selfless enough, patriotic enough, to wage those wars on our behalf.”

Velis’ bill, H.4820, would create a database of self-identifying service members and veterans who have been exposed to open burn pits and require state officials to contact them to relay information about the health effects and the registry.

The state would be required to contact veterans who are eligible for the registry and encourage them to join.

The database would be kept confidential.

Under the bill, the state would provide veterans and health care providers information about the health effects of six chemicals identified at open burn pits during overseas military deployments.

“We want veterans to go and sign up. We want veterans to get checked. By doing so, it starts to document more conditions that the veterans are going through, which then leads to the VA knowing that there are a lot more veterans that are now coming to light that have not reported these conditions,” said Edward Segundo, legislative officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Massachusetts. The VFW represents more than 22,000 members in Massachusetts.

Segundo, who supports the bill, said more veterans on the registry reporting their health conditions means the VA has more evidence to assess whether ailments are tied to open burn pits and what treatment could be provided in response.

Louisiana, Texas, Vermont and New Mexico have similar laws on the books to encourage veterans to join the national registry.

It took decades for Vietnam War veterans to obtain benefits to treat conditions that are believed to be caused by dioxin, a chemical found in Agent Orange. A group of veterans who served on the C-123 Provider planes after the war only became eligible for benefits after a 2015 ruling by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The agency created a registry in 2014 for veterans to document their exposure and health concerns.

The registry is open to those who have served in Southwest Asia on or after Aug. 2, 1990; Operation Desert Shield or Desert Storm; Djibouti on or after Sept. 11, 2001; and operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.

More than 192,000 veterans and service members have submitted a registry questionnaire in the past six years, including 1,962 from Massachusetts.

Velis estimated that 75,000 veterans in the state may be eligible for the registry.

The state representative said he’s concerned that veterans may face similar hurdles as Vietnam veterans faced decades earlier when the impact of dioxin exposure was unknown.

When Velis retook his physical fitness test in 2013, he stationed in Kabul. He struggled for breath as he ran. He finished his test two minutes later than normal.

“I was winded immediately,” he said. His cohorts later told him his poor performance could be tied to the air quality of the base, a theory that stuck with him well into his second deployment.

“I knew throughout the duration of my deployment this last time around that whatever I’m breathing in, it’s probably not good for me,” he said.

“When we’re deployed, we’re in such harsh environments that we’re not even paying attention to the conditions, whether it’s smoke or any of just the airborne hazards overseas,” said Segundo, who also heads Veterans Services for the town of Ludlow.

He added, “If they document their conditions now, while they’re still in the service or as they get out, if something happens in the future, they can go back to this registry and say, ‘I registered here with my assessment. These are the conditions I had at the time.'”

The Military Times compiled maps showing existing burn pits, which show location, time period and types of particulate matter recorded so veterans can determine their potential exposure.


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