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Veterans who led on toxic exposure call defense bill passage a critical first step

U.S. Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group (1st MLG) burn black water. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge)

A massive defense bill passed by Congress on Friday includes provisions that would require government studies of military toxic exposure among fighter pilots and some of the first forces that deployed after the 9/11 attacks.

Veterans see the approval of those provisions as a significant step that they hope will lead to a recognition by the U.S. government that their illnesses were tied to that service.

The broader legislation faces a veto threat from President Donald Trump over other provisions, and veterans’ advocates hope Congress will override any veto as they also begin working with the incoming Biden administration to keep this year’s momentum on addressing toxic exposure going.

The final version of the $740 billion fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act covers military pay and benefits and also funds warships, submarines, missiles and military aircraft.

One provision would require government studies to determine whether veterans who served at a base in Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, or K2, after 9/11 developed illnesses from exposure to radiation, chemical weapons and other toxins that were in the ground.

Another would require the Defense Department, working alongside the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health, to conduct a study on whether military pilots face higher levels of cancer.

“It’s a victory for sure, because we now have legislation that codifies K2. It’s official recognition by the U.S. government for the first time for K2 and Uzbekistan veterans,” said retired Army Staff Sgt. Mark Jackson, a K2 veteran and cancer survivor. “It is a great start, having gone from nothing, and having no recognition whatsoever.”

But both provisions fall short of what the veterans wanted, which is for the Department of Veterans Affairs to add their illnesses as presumptive conditions tied to their military service, so when those veterans go in for medical care it won’t be an uphill battle to get cancer screenings or treatment at VA facilities, and have the cost covered by the VA.

Jackson was informed by his oncologist this week that new lab tests showed he was facing a new cancer diagnosis, but more tests were needed to identify what type of cancer had returned.

“Every time they tell us they need another study or ‘good science’ I am going to look at this picture,” Jackson said in a text to McClatchy of a photo of him receiving an IV infusion of iron serum Wednesday, a first step to address recurring anemia before he can begin treatment.

The legislation also includes an expansion of the number of illnesses covered at the Department of Veterans Affairs for Agent Orange exposure. Two other provisions on burn pit exposure would help veterans who inhaled toxic particles from the military’s open-air trash fires and another would increase access to a new electronic record of toxic exposure the VA is now keeping for veterans.

Several veterans who led the effort to make toxic exposure a priority during this Congress were again battling illness as the bill made its way to final passage.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Mike Crosby, who served as an F-14 radar intercept officer and founded the Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness foundation had just finished another round of radiation treatments for recurrent prostate cancer.

Retired Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot Cmdr. Thomas “Boot” Hill, who raised awareness about the number of military aviators with cancer by building an Excel sheet of names of ill or dead fighter pilots, was taken to an intensive care unit in Arizona Wednesday for internal bleeding and pneumonia associated with his earlier esophageal cancer diagnosis.

On Friday, Hill watched the Senate vote from the TV in his hospital room.

“This study will finally begin to close the knowledge gap on what many of us have believed to be unexplained cancers and other illnesses previously ignored by the VA,” Hill wrote in an email from his hospital room.

“Until you face it, you just don’t know what it [cancer] does to all your plans for enjoying life after giving everything to the military (which I would not change for anything, especially the flying.) The absolute hardest part was walking into the ER with a bag, coughing up blood and saying goodbye, knowing it could be the last time,” Hill wrote.

Retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, who has championed the needs of veterans sickened by burn pits exposure, had also been rehospitalized for internal bleeding.

Until last year, many of the veterans trying to raise awareness on toxic exposure had not been able to get help from Congress and were mainly limited to small grassroots efforts. Then they joined forces, forming the TEAM Coalition, or Toxic Exposures in the American Military, and got high-profile support from comedian Jon Stewart in pressing their case to the government.

Betty Seaman began advocating for toxic exposure recognition after her husband Capt. James Seaman, a Navy pilot and former commanding officer at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, died of lung cancer at age 61. She began working with the coalition last year.

“Reaching likely passage is bittersweet, painful, as we remember those we have lost and those now suffering,” Seaman said in an email to McClatchy. “Yet filled with joy that others will benefit from knowledge gained that may result in prevention and earlier detection.”

The coalition is beginning to work with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden on future toxic exposure relief. Biden’s son Beau, who served with the Delaware Army National Guard, died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46. Biden has previously questioned whether his son’s yearlong exposure to burn pits in Iraq may have been a factor.

“It’s been a big couple of weeks on the toxic exposure front,” said Aleks Morosky, a government affairs specialist for the Wounded Warrior Project, one of about 30 veterans groups that make up the TEAM Coalition.

In a recent meeting with the Biden team, the coalition discussed its support for advancing a toxic exposure bill next session that was sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., because it is unlikely to get through Congress this session, Morosky said.

The bill lifts the onus of proving a cancer or other illness was service connected from the veteran and places it onto the VA to prove it was not service connected.

Trump has threatened to veto the defense bill over provisions unrelated to toxic exposure, including the renaming of military bases that currently honor Confederate generals.

If Trump vetoes the bill, to override it Congress would likely have to return to Washington over the winter break for a vote that would require two-thirds of the members in each chamber, said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.

The bill appeared to have enough support to override a veto after the House voted on Tuesday 355 to 78 and the Senate voted 84-13 on Friday to pass the legislation.

If Trump vetoes the bill and Congress does not override the veto, a group of veterans who served at K2 are hoping that the president might intervene through a last-minute executive order to get their study underway. In that scenario, “the best hope is an executive order,” said K2 veteran and retired Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Widener.

Among the thousands of K2 veterans who served in Uzbekistan is the current acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, who was named by Trump to replace ousted Defense Secretary Mark Esper last month. Miller deployed to K2 with the 5th Special Forces Group in 2001 to support operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

Another K2 veteran is Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., who said he has found bipartisan support with Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., to help those veterans. Green said if the current bill is vetoed, he has seen enough support in Congress to be confident the study for K2 would return in a new NDAA.

His own cancer fight motivates him.

“I don’t have survivor guilt from the war,” said Green, who served as an Army special operations flight surgeon with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and has received treatment for thyroid and colon cancer.

“But I have a little bit of survivor’s guilt from the chemo ward. You’re sitting plugged to a machine next to somebody else that’s plugged to a machine, and you get to know them, you see them in the waiting room … and then they don’t make it, and you kind of feel, ‘why did I get to live and they didn’t?’”


© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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