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Congress should act to protect troops from toxic conditions, NC Sen. Thom Tillis says

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis spoke Tuesday on the dangers of “burn pits,” areas at military sites designated for the open-air combustion of waste.

In a livestreamed discussion with David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Tillis said that the exposure of veterans to toxic combat conditions like these was a serious concern that needed further attention and support.

“It took decades to get to the point where we were providing proper care and support for veterans of the Vietnam War,” Tillis said, noting that his wife’s uncle had died of Agent Orange exposure after serving in Vietnam. “We cannot afford to take decades.”

Tillis is a North Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Though the Department of Veterans Affairs has said that studies do not yet show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits, McClatchyDC reported last year that veterans saw a spike in urinary, prostate, liver and blood cancers during the past two decades of war. From 2000 to 2018, treatments at the VA increased by 61% for urinary cancers, 18% for blood cancers, 96% for liver and pancreatic cancers and 23% for prostate cancers.

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Veterans, military families, lawmakers and advocates have blamed burn pits and other sources of toxins in combat for this dramatic rise, and to date more than 200,000 veterans have reported health concerns as a result of exposure.

Better tracking, treatment

In the discussion, Tillis said that Congress needed to work with the VA and Department of Defense on the issue, and assure them that they would not receive “an unfunded mandate” to address these health concerns with only their current budget.

“This should never be about money,” he said. “This should be about providing care to service members and veterans.”

The senator called for better tracking of health records in order to predict risk earlier, and to provide early treatment for anyone who may have been exposed to the toxins.

“I want to get to a point where we have the data to predict a risk before the soldier, the serviceman, or the veteran, would ever even expect that they are at risk,” he said.

He added there should be an independent agency working to understand the nature of exposures, and providing guidance on how to move forward — but said that it needed to happen soon.

“This is something that we should be talking about getting in this Congress or the next,” he said.

Lafayette Square incident

Ignatius also asked Tillis about Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his appearance alongside President Donald Trump at St. John’s Church this month, when police and the National Guard used tear gas and other tactics to forcefully clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. Milley has since apologized for his presence, noting that it may have “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Tillis warned such uses of force should be employed judiciously.

“The men and women sign up to serve the United States to defend against foreign enemies,” he said. “And I think that we found ourselves in a situation where we came close to where it would be an inappropriate use of the military.”

He went on to say that he did not want to see the situation escalate, and “didn’t want the yelling to drown out the legitimate grievances of those who want to come together and figure out a better way for law enforcement to act responsibly.”

As Tillis faces a tough re-election battle against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham later this year, his action on veterans’ issues may have an impact on the race. According to a 2017 Veteran Affairs report, 9.31% of North Carolina’s adult population are veterans.

Tillis faced criticism last year from Cunningham and other Democrats for his vote in support of President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration that shifted millions from military projects in North Carolina to the construction of a wall on the southern border. He had earlier written an opinion piece opposing such a presidential declaration.

Jon Stewart on veterans

Other speakers at the Washington Post event included U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat, and Tara Copp, a McClatchy correspondent who reported last year on the spike in veteran cancers. Jon Stewart, comedian and veterans advocate, and Derek Fronabarger, director of government affairs at the Wounded Warrior Project, which sponsored the event, also spoke on the issue.

“We’ve gotten really, really good in this country at saying we support the military, and we put on the flag pin, and we thank them for their service, and we give them that 10% coupon and appetizers for Chili’s,” Stewart said. “But the truth is, structurally, we have not done enough to address the wounds of war that they come home with.”

“The system is set up to deny them the benefits,” he said.

Stewart previously advocated for health care for 9/11 first responders, who he said were exposed to similar toxins at Ground Zero.

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© 2020 The News & Observer