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  • Peter Antioho

     

    Every day for 10 months in 2012, Peter Antioho walked through dense, black smoke from an open burn pit on his Army base in Afghanistan. Human and medical waste, plastic water bottles, ammunition and chemicals were among the materials burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day.

    Five years later, Antioho was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. The West Point graduate and Berlin resident was 31 when he was diagnosed, young for this cancer. He was second in command at his base, but now, with symptoms that include memory loss and impaired vision, speech and motor function, he can’t work.

    He has submitted medical records and statements by doctors, his commander and others to prove a link between his cancer and the burn pits, but has been rejected for related federal disability benefits twice.

    The burn pit “was always smoldering and there was no way to go around it,” Antioho said in a statement to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

    He is in the process of requesting another review with the help of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.

    Across the country, Veterans are contending exposure to burn pits and other airborne toxins has made them sick. But of the 12,378 burn pit disability claims filed between June 2007 and last March 31, only 20 percent (2,425) were granted VA disability benefits.

    After 9/11, open pits were the predominant method of waste disposal on Iraq and Afghanistan military bases. A wide range of items, including paint, petroleum, rubber and food waste, were burned. In 2010, Congress banned the pits except where there aren’t feasible alternatives.

    A major concern is that burn pit exposure will be like Agent Orange exposure, which resulted in Vietnam War Veterans fighting for decades for benefits for related illnesses, said Stephen Kennedy, Connecticut team leader of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The hope is to avoid “turning it into this whole nightmare Vietnam Veterans are going through,” said Kennedy, of Fairfield.

    Veterans are pinning their hopes on Congressional action. The proposed Burn Pits Accountability Act would require the Department of Defense (DOD) to track burn pit exposure of service members, include it in all medical and military records, and share it with the VA. All exposed Veterans would be enrolled in the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, now a voluntary questionnaire. Another bill would permit designees to add cause of death to registry data on deceased Veterans. Both registry proposals aim to determine the extent of exposures, illnesses and clusters.

    According to the VA, 3.5 million Veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East are eligible to record their exposure in the burn pit registry, a tool to help identify health conditions possibly related to burn pits. As of April 1, there were 173,195 Veterans enrolled. State breakdowns updated to Dec. 31, 2018, show 832 from Connecticut. Advocates contend many Veterans aren’t aware of the registry.

    Kennedy, an Army Veteran who served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, said most military there “had at least some interaction” with the pits. “Some people camped out right next to them for their whole deployment,” he said.

    The smell was “pretty nasty,” Kennedy said, calling it “the kind of smell where you know this is wrong, this can’t be good for you.”

    Kennedy said he hasn’t gotten ill, but has enrolled in the burn pit registry to establish his exposure in the event of a future illness. Such enrollment does not affect the disposition of a claim, according to the VA. Veterans note that some illnesses linked to the herbicide and defoliant chemical Agent Orange didn’t manifest for decades.

    The IAVA is calling for more information, research and new laws. “The simple fact of the matter is we don’t have a total accounting of where they were or where they operate right now,” said Melissa Bryant, IAVA chief policy officer. Bryant said since she left the Army, she has had sinus infections and infertility problems and suspects a connection to burn pits in Iraq.

    According to the U.S. Central Command of the DOD, there is one burn pit in Syria that disposes of hazardous waste and 13 others throughout the Middle East that burn non-hazardous materials and/or classified documents. No specific locations were provided.

    Margaret Kuzma, director of discharge upgrades practice for the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, said without conclusive medical research, Veterans are missing out on benefits.

    “Unfortunately, until the VA puts substantial resources into studying the effects, and comes out with a list of presumptive, or at least potentially connected, conditions” she said, “it is really hard even for Veterans or advocates to pinpoint a connection, let alone convince the VA.”

    Spokespersons said the DOD and the VA are researching health links to burn pit exposure and cited an upcoming study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which is to conclude next year.

    “The health and well-being of our service members is a DOD priority,” said Heather Babb, a spokesperson. “We are concerned that toxins from burn pit emissions may pose health risks and we are assessing potential long-term impacts,” she said.

    Tatjana Christian, a VA spokesperson, said the VA uses “the latest scientific and medical evidence available” to adjudicate burn pit claims, which are considered “on an individual, case-by-case basis.” She said Veterans have been granted benefits for such illnesses as migraine, chronic bronchitis, sinusitis, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

    Bryant, of the IAVA, said that since the VA doesn’t automatically presume a connection between illnesses and burn pit exposure, a Veteran must “make an ironclad case.” She said the onus “should be on the government to say ‘we know you were in this place and were exposed.’”

    Antioho submitted “at least 12 pieces of new evidence” when he filed his second claim, but was rejected again, said his wife, Amy Antioho.

    He spends his days getting physical and occupational therapy at Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford; social work and other health care at the Newington VA; and cancer care at Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven. He and his wife, his full-time caregiver, have a 3-year-old son.

    Amy Antioho said VA staff have told the couple, “We will do everything in our power to help you with your claim.” But, she said, “My husband has a terminal illness. We might not have that time.”

    Source

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  • Burn Pit Widower

     

    It was in 2009 when Brian Muller first met his wife, Amie.

    "We actually met at a music venue. And at the time I was playing music in a band and she had some friends there that were at the event," Muller, 45, from Woodbury, Minn., recalls in a recent interview with Fox News. "Her friends forced her to go out. I forced myself to go out and just to see some music."

    He remembers how they discussed her service with the Minnesota Air National Guard.

    "We ended up talking about what she does with the military," he says, "and at that time, she was doing a project to make video memorials for gold star families. Families that lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan or any type of war."

    "She asked me to write a song for those videos. And that's how we kind of started our relationship, as-- friends, and then it developed from there."

    Brian has never served in the military but was impressed by Amie's service -- including her two tours in Iraq.

    "She wanted to fly, and she joined the Air Force. And she got deployed and had her life kind of uprooted there for a while."

    Amie was stationed at the Iraqi air base in Balad during both of her tours in 2005 and 2007. While her active service was already behind her, the effects from her time on that base still lingered.

    "She didn't really want to talk about her time over there," Brian says. "Anytime a door would slam or a loud noise, she'd get startled very easily. She had a lot of PTSD [episodes] from just little things."

    A decade after returning from Iraq, Amie's physical health also suffered. She was diagnosed with Stage III Pancreatic Cancer.

    "I still remember Amie getting the call, and she looked at me," Muller says about the day they found out about her diagnosis back in April 2016.

    "We walked around the corner just to make sure the kids didn't see. I could tell by the look in her face how scared she was. And I just kind of listening in to the call. And we just started shaking.

    Both she and Brian believed it was related to her exposure to open-air burn pits used to destroy trash generated on the base. Nearly every U.S. military installation in Iraq during the war used the crude method of burn pit disposal, but Balad was known for having one of the largest operations, burning nearly 150 tons of waste a day.

    The smoke generated from these pits hung above Amie's barracks daily.

    "She talked about the burn pits even before she got cancer," Muller recalls, "and how the fact that they would change the filters on these ventilation systems quite frequently. And every time they'd change it would just be this black soot, so thick that you would think you'd have to change it every hour."

    "After she told me what they were burning, you know, all I thought about is all the campfires that we had in our backyard. You don't burn Styrofoam. You don't burn plastic. We all know that, but they were burning all those things. Highly toxic."

    As early as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, burn pits were used at U.S. military bases in Iraq. At the height of the Iraq War in 2005, more than 300,000 troops were stationed there and potentially exposed to the smoke and fumes from burn pits.

    Thousands of Veterans and former contractors returned from the Middle East and have developed rare cancers, respiratory problems, and blood disorders from what they claim are their exposure to toxins from the flaming pits. More than 140,000 active-service members and retirees have put their names on a Burn Pit Registry created by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    After Amie was diagnosed and her treatment began, she and her family went public with her story in the hopes that it would bring awareness to the dangers she and countless Veterans faced after what they believe was a result of burn pit exposure.

    Amie succumbed to her illness just nine months after she first diagnosed.

    In her absence, Brian continued Amie's work in raising awareness by sharing her story. He also worked closely with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., toward getting "The Helping Veterans Exposed To Burn Pits Act" -- a bipartisan bill recently presented in Washington and signed by President Trump -- passed.

    The bill will help fund a new center by the Department of Veterans Affairs that will study the effects of burn pit exposure and eventually assist with treatment plans. He also started the Amie Muller Foundation, which helps other Veterans who were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

    "I just hope that our Vets are going to get the help they need," Brian says, "and it's not going bring back Amie, my wife, but it's going to get Veterans the help they need."

    But recent findings show that the Pentagon was aware of the dangers of burn pits during the height of the war in Iraq.

    Fox News recently obtained a series of memos drafted by top officials at Balad during the same years that Amie served at the base. The authors of the documents -- which include commanding officers as well as environmental officials -- stated that the operation of burn pits was a danger to those stationed there and that precautions needed to be taken urgently to improve conditions.

    "In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals," reads a line from one memo written by a Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander and the Chief of Aeromedical Services at Balad in 2006. "There is also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke."

    The memo also includes an assessment of the pits in Balad where one environmental inspector said that Balad's burn pit was "the worst environmental site I have personally visited."

    After inquiries by Fox News regarding the memos, Officials for the Department of Defense said that they would look into the matter and explained their procedural policy and that open-air burn pits are to be operated in a manner that prevents or minimizes risk.

    "DOD does not dispose of covered waste in open-air burn pits during contingency operations except when the combatant commander determines there are no feasible alternative methods available," reads the statement provided by a Defense Department spokeswoman. "DOD minimizes other solid waste disposal in open-air burn pits during contingency operations. Generally, open-air burn pits are a short-term solution. For the longer term, we use incinerators, engineered landfills, or other accepted solid waste management practices whenever feasible."

    Muller finds the memos troublesome.

    "I don't understand why they didn't do something," he says after being shown a copy of the memos. "These are people that volunteered to serve our country, and it just disgusts me to see memos like that, from high ranking officers that expressed this concern."

    Muller adds that the underlying issue is a lack of accountability.

    "The issue is they were doing something they shouldn't have done, that they constantly warned was an environmental hazard," he says. "And our Vets are getting sick. Our Vets are dying."

    "You know, there was a fellow that did a video--'Delay, Deny and Hope You Die.' And that's kind of what's been going on. They're delaying this as long as possible so that they won't have to deal with as many claims, because most of them will die before they do anything about it."

    Muller also believes that Amie would have never fallen ill if it wasn't for the fact that she was stationed at Balad.

    "I don't think she would have gotten cancer. I really don't. Maybe she would have later in life. Maybe it would have been some other type of cancer. I don't know," he says. "But something caused inflammation -- for something to grow in her body for a long period of time before it was ever seen and diagnosed. There was something going on with all of the Vets when they got back."

    In a recent interview with Fox News, Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. Central Command and Multi-National Force-Iraq in 2007, offered an explanation when asked about why burn pits were used on military bases, conceding that the realities of war kept concerns about how to dispose of waste a low priority at that time.

    "At that time we weren't worried about burn pits," The general said back in September. "We were worried about just getting enough water for our troops in the really hot summer. We were looking forward to the time where we might get some real food, real rations, as opposed to MREs and so forth."

    The general also expressed that the U.S. has a commitment toward helping those Veterans.

    "It's a sacred obligation," Petraeus said. "But comparing what our VA does to any other country's care of Veterans... this is the gold standard. Certainly, a gold standard that can always improve, without question. This is an issue, though, where we have a sacred obligation, and we need to meet that obligation."

    Muller believes the general's recent comments to be a sign of a move in the right direction.

    "When you start seeing men in uniform, or women in uniform, people higher up in the military starting to voice their concerns, you know we're making progress."

    Source

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  • Burn Pits 001

     

    There is some good news for Veterans suffering from illnesses from their deployments to Southwest Asia: Some members of Congress are taking notice and working to get them and their families the assistance they need.

    While the bills still need to pass the full Congress before being signed into law by the president, congressmen such as U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, say broad support from both the Republican and Democratic parties on behalf of the nation’s Veterans is offering some measure of hope for the future.

    Castro is currently sponsoring two bills: H.R. 1001, Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act and H.R. 1005, Burn Pit Veterans Revision Act.

    H.R. 1001 would allow family members of service members who have died from illnesses and cancers believed to be linked to exposure to the trash-burning pits to update the Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits Registry with their service member’s death and cause.

    H.R. 1005 would allow for constrictive bronchiolitis to be considered presumed as service connected to exposure to open burn pits while deployed by the VA for care and benefits.

    More than 3.7 million active-duty service members and Veterans have been exposed to the toxic smoke from trash burning pits while serving in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror, and many of them are getting sick with illnesses and cancers they can’t explain.

    Burn pits were used to destroy plastics, batteries, medical waste, ammunition and everything in between. They were a common way to get rid of waste and helped ensure some items — such as military uniforms and items that could potentially be used against military troops — did not fall into enemy hands. Burn pits have been in use in Southwest Asia since August 1990 at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield and used throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, is also working on the issues.

    “As the top Republican on the VA Appropriations Subcommittee, I’ve been working to address burn pit issues through the appropriations process, including providing $10 million for burn-pit related research in the last year. I anticipate that additional funding will be made available in the FY20 legislation for research too,” Carter said in an email.

    “The Burn Pit Registration is a critical tool for researchers and it’s imperative to track Veterans that are experiencing symptoms linked to burn pits. As the bill stands, I would vote for the Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act, to give family member’s the ability to participate in the registry on behalf of a deceased Veteran. The more research we have access to, the better we can address this issue,” Carter said.

    Castro has been proactive with his work on burn pits exposures issues, actively seeking input from his constituents.

    “I just did three different town hall (meetings) in three different cities — San Antonio, Corpus Christi and in the (Rio Grande) Valley, all on burn pits,” said Castro, whose district contains roughly 60,000 Veterans. “After the San Antonio event, I visited with a Veteran named William Garza. He was really on the verge of death. His family was there and they told me his story — I came back a few days later because they said he was really about to pass away, and visited with him that night. I think it was a Sunday night. The next day he passed away. He was 38.”

    It was the stories such as Garza’s — a former U.S. Marine Corps corporal — from his Veteran constituents which got Castro involved in making sure Veterans exposed to the toxic smoke from burn pits while deployed could get the care they need, he said.

    “I just believe that we need to make sure we don’t ignore the medical conditions of our Veterans the way Agent Orange conditions were ignored for Vietnam Veterans,” Castro said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure this generation doesn’t get that same unfair treatment and foot dragging. In the meantime, there are people suffering and people who are dying, because they are not getting the care they need. It’s a work in progress, and we still have a long way to go, but I feel like there is a lot of momentum to get this done.”

    Nonprofit organization Burn Pits 360 has been working closely with Castro on the bills. The organization maintains its own registry, which already allows family members to update their service member’s information, has more than 600 Veterans with cancer listed in it already, said Rosie Torres, co-founder of the nonprofit. A registry for those who died on the website, burnpits360.org, lists more than 100 deaths across the nation: More than 90 of those deaths were from the cancers — the rest were Veterans with cancer who committed suicide because of it.

    “I am originally from San Antonio, born and raised,” Torres said. “The district I live in now (Corpus Christi) at the time was not supporting any of our efforts or Veterans affected by burn pits. So we decided to reach out to his office since we had Veterans also affected in his district.”

    The two bills Castro introduced were originally submitted for draft by the nonprofit, she added.

    “H.R. 1005 makes the most sense to introduce as a presumptive, since it is the one disease that requires a very invasive open-lung biopsy that consists of a chest tube and a three-day stay in the hospital,” said Torres, whose husband, retired Capt. Leroy Torres, suffers from the disease. “(This) means the amount of Veterans diagnosed with (constrictive bronchiolitis) is low.”

    Constrictive bronchiolitis causes the smallest airways in the lungs, known as bronchioles, to swell, making it difficult to breathe, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can lead to chronic respiratory failure and, in severe cases, death.

    Castro is joined in his efforts to pass legislation on behalf of Veterans by California Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz, D-Desert Palms. Ruiz was approached by members of his own district and was able to look at their medical records from a physician’s point of view.

    “We must act now to help our burn pits exposed Veterans and service members,” Ruiz said in August 2018 after President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 into law. “I’m an emergency physician and public health expert, and in public health and in medicine it is practice that if there is a high enough suspicion of a harm that causes a severe enough illness, then we need to act on that suspicion. Remove the harm, treat the person.”

    Castro said acquiring timely VA presumption for illnesses and cancers other than constrictive bronchiolitis will most likely require additional legislation by Congress.

    “We’re just trying to cut down on that time process here. It’s still tough — in some ways it feels like we’re repeating what happened before with getting the VA to recognize illnesses caused by Agent Orange,” he said. “I would ask people to come forward if they believe they have been affected, or if they have a loved one living or passed away who was affected. It’s important for everyone to come forward so that we have a better understanding of the conditions people are dealing with, and so people can pursue justice and fair medical care.”

    Castro and Ruiz will be hosting a congressional briefing on burn pits in Washington, D.C. on April 30, to discuss how the toxic wounds of war are affecting Veterans, current issues and how Congress and the medical community can work together to improve the lives of Veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “I do think the VA is coming around on the burn pits issue, but we’ve got to get this legislation through,” said Castro, who served in the Texas Legislature for 10 years prior to becoming a U.S. Representative in 2013. “Not just my legislation, but the other legislation that’s out there. We’ve got to get it passed. The federal legislative process is just a lot slower compared to Austin — not just for this issue, but any issue. And that’s on a bipartisan issue.”

    Torres said she is looking forward to the congressional briefing and bringing to light the issues facing Veterans exposed to toxic airborne hazards during deployments.

    “There is a cloak of shame and someone needs to wear it,” she said. “Congress must remind the VA and (Department of Defense) that these war heroes honored their oath; now it’s time for them to honor theirs. This is pretty much our mantra for the briefing in April.”

    For more information on the congressional briefing and current proposed legislation, visit burnpits360.org.

    Source

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  • Ryne Robinson

     

    WASHINGTON — Everywhere he went in Iraq during his yearlong deployment, Ryne Robinson saw the burning trash pits. Sometimes, like in Ramadi, they were as large as a municipal dump, filled with abandoned or destroyed military vehicles, synthetic piping and discarded combat meals. Sometimes he tossed garbage on them himself.

    “The smell was horrendous,” said Mr. Robinson, who was in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.

    About nine years after returning home to Indiana, where he worked as a corrections officer, he began to suffer headaches and other health problems, which doctors attributed to post-traumatic stress. After having a seizure while driving on Christmas Day last year, though, he was told he had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor.

    Of the ailments endured by the newest generation of Veterans — post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and more — among the least understood are those possibly related to exposure to toxic substances in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially from those fires known as burn pits.

    Now, with the largest freshman class of Veteran lawmakers in a decade, Congress appears determined to lift the issue of burn pits from obscure medical journals and Veterans’ websites to the floors and hearing rooms of Capitol Hill. Members are vowing to force the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with the issue.

    Tens of thousands of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to burn pits, which were regularly used to dispose of all manner of refuse in giant dumps ignited by jet fuel. Discarding waste was an especially acute problem for troops there, as huge bases were established in locations that had no infrastructure for proper disposal or existing sanitation services had been shattered by combat.

    From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs processed 11,581 disability compensation claims with at least one condition related to burn pit exposure, according to Curt Cashour, a department spokesman. Of those, 2,318 claims were granted.

    But almost 44 percent of burn-pit-related claims were denied because the condition had not been officially diagnosed, while roughly 54 percent were “due to a lack of evidence establishing a connection to military service,” Mr. Cashour said.

    Tens of thousands more Veterans have signed up with a national registry, noting that they were exposed to the more than 250 burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan, like those at the smallest outposts or the giant dump at Balad Air Base, where an immense pit burned 24 hours a day. There is no clearinghouse that enumerates deaths associated with these toxic exposures, something that advocacy groups seek.

    After Mr. Robinson’s diagnosis, his wife, Chasity, was grilled by a local Department of Veterans Affairs representative about his deployment. Where had he been and for how long? She wondered, What did this have to do with his tumor?

    “I started to do the research,” she said, and realized that many other Veterans and their families, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., believed that such tumors stemmed from breathing toxic fumes from the open-air trash fires that were standard on American military bases in the desert war zones since Sept. 11, 2001. “I wish they would have told us about this instead of throwing us to the wolves,” she said.

    Congress is listening. Both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs plan to review the process for adding diseases to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ list of presumed service-connected illnesses used to determine disability compensation. That already worries department officials because of the potential for explosive costs — and the difficulty of accurately determining whether diseases are caused by burn pit exposure.

    “It is a top priority to make sure Veterans who have service-connected diseases have the care and benefits they are owed,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. There are also concerns about exposure to depleted uranium, which was used in tank armor and in the ammunition intended to penetrate enemy-armored vehicles.

    “We are going to make a lot of noise this year,” said Representative Raul Ruiz, Democrat of California and the co-chairman of the bipartisan House caucus on burn pits. “You are starting to see more and more people come out of the military with illness and diagnosis and realizing they have been exposed to burn pits.” He and other members have already introduced a flurry of bills.

    In interviews, Mr. Biden has speculated that toxic substances from burn pits contributed to the brain cancer of his son Beau. The younger Mr. Biden served in Iraq, as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard in 2009, and died of the illness in 2015.

    Scores of other Veterans and their families have said they believe those toxic substances contributed to their illnesses, many of them fatal, a claim the Department of Veterans Affairs said is not supported by evidence.

    “The V.A. looks continually at medical research and follows trends related to medical conditions affecting Veterans,” Mr. Cashour, of the Veterans department, said.

    Megan Kingston, who was deployed to Iraq in 2007, described her path from the Army to civil servant, and now as a disabled Veteran in need of constant oxygen.

    “I looked at that trash pit and knew it was going to hurt us one day,” Ms. Kingston said. In 2014, she was training for a triathlon, and “one day, I went for a run,” she said. “Next day, I could not breathe.”

    “This is our generation’s Agent Orange,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, referring to an herbicide known to sicken Veterans in Vietnam. She has already gotten some research legislation passed on burn pits and has more on the horizon, motivated, like many members of Congress, by the stories of affected constituents.

    Proving a link between toxic substances in war zones and subsequent illnesses suffered by Veterans — especially years after a war — has long been difficult, expensive and politically onerous.

    Years after Agent Orange has become widely accepted as a cause of illness among Veterans of the Vietnam War, there has been a protracted struggle over benefits for those who were sickened after serving off the coast during that conflict.

    Last month, the United States Court of Appeals found those sailors, known as Blue Water Navy Veterans — an estimated 90,000 who served in ships off the coast of Vietnam — to be eligible for the same Agent Orange exposure benefits as troops who served on land in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans Affairs has yet to respond.

    The Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal to hold private companies responsible for burn pits, upholding an appellate court ruling that blocked more than 60 lawsuits from moving forward.

    “It took decades and decades for the U.S. government to acknowledge that Agent Orange created devastating health effects for soldiers,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “We can’t let that happen again. I think you’re not going to get help in the courts, so we are going to have to step up — a lot of this will be oversight.”

    Lawmakers and some doctors say that the Pentagon has also been doubtful of claims.

    “It thought it was telling that last hearing, D.O.D. refused to send a representative,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii, referring to the Defense Department. She has helped sponsor legislation to evaluate the exposure of service members to toxic chemicals.

    “There is no question a large number of individuals were exposed to high levels of toxic waste,” said David A. Savitz, who served as the chairman of a committee that studied the issue for the Veterans department. “But when you go to the level of ‘show me’ the increased risk of the health conditions, that’s where the evidence breaks down pretty quickly.”

    Some doctors — and many patients and their families — are more certain.

    “I started seeing young people with similar types of presentations of uncharacteristic malignancies at young ages,” said Dr. Warren L. Alexander, an oncologist who has worked extensively with Veterans at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso. “There were about 10 percent of unexplained malignancies, where the patient had no history of drinking or smoking. When you have very aggressive cancers that do not respond to standard therapy, that’s what makes you think it was due to exposure.”

    In 2004, Dr. Robert F. Miller of Vanderbilt University studied soldiers who returned from Iraq with unexplained shortness of breath. He performed surgical biopsies on about 60 Veterans’ lungs, which in most cases revealed evidence of constrictive bronchiolitis, an incurable disease stemming from tiny particles lodged in the airways.

    Many believe that the small number of Americans serving in the military — less than 1 percent of the population — has kept the issue from public view.

    “The burn pit issue has not gained traction in terms of research money or public policy,” said Dr. Anthony M. Szema, an allergist-immunologist and the former chief of allergy medicine at the Veterans Affairs Department who has researched the relationship between particles and respiratory illnesses. “I have been invited to give lectures at the Pentagon and it’s two hours of them yelling at me. They understand there is a problem, but they don’t want to take the blame for it.”

    Pentagon officials acknowledge that the Defense Department is concerned that toxic substances from burn pit emissions may pose health risks and is assessing the long-term effects. “D.O.D. and V.A. are working to develop a standard approach to screening and evaluation of service members and Veterans with post-deployment respiratory complaints to improve care,” said Jessica Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the defense secretary.

    Advocates say that without a diagnosis and recognition of illnesses, benefits are often denied, especially for the families of the dead.

    “What happens when the Veteran has died, you have many families left with no benefit of the death,” said Rosie Torres, the executive director of Burn Pits 360, which helps press for those who believe they were sickened by burn pits. Her husband, Le Roy Torres, an Army captain in Iraq in 2007, has been told he has constrictive bronchiolitis.

    She said her organization has tracked at least 130 deaths related to toxic exposure.

    Veterans’ service organizations — which sometimes compete for attention on certain policy matters — are beginning to form a coalition around the issue.

    “We know that our government’s senior leaders need confirmatory data as the basis for changes to current policy,” said Derek Fronabarger, a legislative director for the Wounded Warrior Project. “And we are asking them to take the issue of toxic exposure seriously and work with us to determine correlation.”

    Source

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  • Air Burn Pits

     

    Congress considering several measures focusing on airborne hazards

    Tammy McCracken said her husband was fit and lean before he deployed to Iraq, a weightlifter and a runner with no history of serious illnesses.

    But David returned home from Baghdad in 2009 with a persistent dry cough. Headaches came next. Then confusion, disorientation and memory loss. On the day he learned of his promotion to colonel in 2011, his doctors in Atlanta performed a biopsy and found a brain tumor. It would kill him in less than a year. He died at 46, leaving behind three children.

    Tammy is certain of what caused his cancer — the vast open-air burn pits the U.S. military used to eliminate all kinds of waste in Iraq. Everything went in them: unexploded ordnance, metal cans, plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, paint, lubricants, even body parts and animal carcasses. Ignited with jet fuel, the pits belched heavy smoke into the same air the soldiers breathed around their bases.

    More than 170,000 troops and Veterans who spent time in Iraq and elsewhere have added their names to a national government registry that tracks exposure to burn pits, oil well fires and other airborne hazards. As of Dec. 31, 7,255 Georgians were on the list. A nonprofit advocacy group that tracks the issue, Burn Pits 360, says it has tracked 130 deaths tied to burn pit exposure.

    The Veterans Affairs Department has rejected most disability compensation claims to date. It points to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report that says insufficient data makes it impossible to conclude whether burn pit emissions could cause long-term health problems. But the VA says it continues to study the issue.

    Several bills focusing on the issue are pending in Congress. Among them are measures that also would allow families of deceased Veterans to participate in the government’s airborne hazards registry and require the VA to create evaluation criteria for disability benefits for an illness often linked to burn pits, obliterative bronchiolitis. Meanwhile, Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is planning to hold a hearing on exposures to burn pits and other toxic hazards next month.

    Former Vice President Joseph Biden brought more attention to the issue last year, when he speculated whether his 46-year-old son’s death from brain cancer was linked to burn pits. In 2009, Beau Biden deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq — the same base where David McCracken was stationed — before dying in 2015 from the same brain cancer that killed McCracken, glioblastoma multiforme.

    Tammy McCracken’s experience inspired her to volunteer with Burn Pits 360 and to enroll in a graduate analytics program at Georgia Tech. She hopes to use what she has learned and publish the locations of the military’s burn pits. She also wants to help other families get the same VA indemnity compensation and education benefits her family received after nearly four years of appealing to the agency to link her husband’s death to his military service.

    “Why do we have to wait for symptoms to arise?” she said. “Why do we have to wait for a doctor to tell a family your husband has stage 4 cancer. It doesn’t have to happen this way.”

    The 10-acre burn pit

    To incinerate the many tons of waste created each day on bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and on the Horn of Africa, the U.S. military set up scores of open-air burn pits.

    Approved by the Pentagon, they were supposed to be temporary until trash incinerators could be installed, but some remained in operation up until as recently as 2015, according to Joseph Hickman’s exposé, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.” Many soldiers were “housed as close as a few hundred yards away from the burn pits, and in some cases recreational halls and other base facilities were built nearly adjacent to the toxic pyres,” wrote Hickman, a former Marine and Army sergeant.

    The pit that drew the most attention burned north of Baghdad at Joint Base Balad, home at one point to about 25,000 troops and civilians. The pit stretched across 10 acres, incinerated several hundred tons of waste each day and sent smoke over the base’s living areas, VA records show. Military air tests there revealed dioxin, a compound linked to some cancers. Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War, also contained a form of dioxin.

    The Defense Department said it is “concerned that toxins from burn pit emissions may pose health risks” and that the pits are generally meant to be short-term.

    “For the longer term,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb said, “we use incinerators, engineered landfills or other accepted solid waste management practices. When used, open-air burn pits must be operated in a manner that prevents or minimizes risks to human health and safety of DOD personnel.”

    Michael Keister mapped the locations of more than a dozen burn pits in Iraq while working with Tammy McCracken for a Georgia-based military contractor about nine years ago. He remembers wearing a bandana over his mouth and nose and goggles to protect himself from the acrid smoke.

    “No one would ever get away with this in any county in the United States,” said Keister, a Vietnam War Veteran who has suffered from diabetes connected to Agent Orange exposure. “It appeared they didn’t give a hoot about anybody over there, including our own soldiers and Marines.”

    Kris Marbutt of McDonough said her 34-year-old husband, Sgt. John Marbutt, died from brain cancer — glioblastoma multiforme — in 2016 after being exposed to burn pits during his deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2009 and 2010. She remembers him telling her how thick the air was in Iraq and how he later suffered from two brain tumors, headaches, dizziness and numbness.

    “He served our country with dignity,” she said. “And he did not deserve to suffer and die like he did.”

    Dozens of Veterans, civilian contractors and their families sued the military contractors who were responsible for managing the burn pits, including KBR, alleging they were harmed by the smoke coming from them. But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal, leaving in place a lower court decision that blocked the lawsuits from moving forward.

    The VA says it is pursuing a new review focusing on respiratory health.

    “We continually look at the research and follow trends since some diseases, such as a cancer, have a long latency period,” VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said in an email. “At this time, science does not support making burn pit exposure a presumptive condition for any illness.”

    Still, the agency has approved some disability compensation claims that had at least one condition related to burn pit exposure. From June of 2007 through March of this year, the VA processed 12,378 of them. Of those, 2,425 — or a fifth — had at least one burn pit condition granted, according to the VA.

    His final words

    David McCracken grew up in New Castle, Penn., the son of a Korean War Veteran and a homemaker. An industrial hygienist, he was sharp, he thrived in school and he loved the military, according to his widow, Tammy. She got one of his favorite expressions, Embrace every moment, tattooed on her right wrist after he died.

    In her tidy home in Tyrone, she is surrounded by things that remind her of him: The silver sword she presented him the day he was promoted to colonel, his plentiful challenge coin collection, his mint green camouflage Army caps, and the American flag that draped his casket.

    The day he died, she said, he shared some vanilla ice cream — his favorite flavor — with her and their three children in the hospice wing of the Atlanta hospital that cared for him. He asked Tammy if he did a good job as a husband and father. Absolutely, she told him, you did a fantastic job. Those were the final words they shared.

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  • Burn Pit Registry

     

    WASHINGTON — The House unanimously approved a bill this week to make the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry a more useful tool for researching the health effects of toxic exposure on servicemembers and Veterans.

    The House passed the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act on Wednesday with a vote of 416-0. It would allow family members of deceased servicemembers and Veterans to enter cause of death in the registry. As of now, only registered individuals are allowed to update their health information.

    The change was recommended by Veterans groups, including Burn Pits 360, which has expressed concerns that the registry hasn’t been used to his fullest potential.

    “According to Burn Pits 360, without tracking [causes of death]... the registry’s ability to establish mortality rates related to conditions and diseases associated to toxic exposure will be precluded,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

    Pits were used until 2010 at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris, releasing hazardous fumes into the air. Some servicemembers exposed to the smoke have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to it.

    The burn pit registry, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, was created in 2014 to collect health information voluntarily from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. It includes more than 170,000 troops.

    Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, both medical doctors, lead the congressional Burn Pits Caucus and sponsored the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act. While lawmakers approved the bill Wednesday with little controversy, Ruiz is setting his sights on more drastic changes –- and he’s anticipating a fight with the VA.

    “The burn pit registry is a proactive thing Veterans can do to feel empowered and share information, to have a communication mechanism,” Ruiz said. “The registry is not an end-all.”

    In the next two or three months, Ruiz plans to introduce more legislation to secure benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, he said.

    One bill would place Veterans with exposure to burn pits into priority group six for VA health care. When Veterans try to enroll for VA health care, they’re placed into priority groups based on their need. Burn pit exposure is not part of that arrangement.

    Group six now includes some Vietnam Veterans, along with those who served in the Persian Gulf War and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

    Another bill Ruiz is drafting would add lung diseases from burn pit exposure to a list of conditions presumed to be caused by military service. The action would fast-track VA benefits for Veterans suffering from those diseases. It would mark the first time Veterans with burn pit exposure would be entitled to such treatment from the VA. When creating presumptions, the agency typically has a high bar for scientific evidence to link diseases with military service.

    “We don’t have time for that,” Ruiz said of waiting for more medical studies. “There’s enough evidence right now to determine that there’s a high suspicion. We have Veterans who are dying, so we need to act on that suspicion.”

    Some Vietnam Veterans are still attempting to secure VA benefits for exposure to Agent Orange. “Blue Water” Navy Veterans, those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war, have fought for years to prove they were exposed to the dioxin-laden herbicide. The VA has opposed their efforts, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence. A federal court ruled in January that Blue Water Veterans are eligible for VA benefits. The government has until later this month to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

    Ruiz didn’t have a cost estimate for his legislation.

    “I think that because we’ve been through this song and dance before with Agent Orange, that’s why we need to introduce legislation right away,” he said.

    Besides lung diseases, some Veterans suffering from cancers and autoimmune diseases have said they believe the ailments were caused by their exposure to burn pits. Ruiz said he plans to tackle those issues in the future.

    “This isn’t one chemical causing a specific syndrome or illness,” Ruiz said. “These are hundreds of different chemicals that are producing a variety of illnesses.”

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  • Joe Biden 001

     

    • The US military used burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to get rid of waste using jet fuel
    • A growing swell of research is showing links between burn pits and cancer
    • For the first time, Joe Biden has acknowledged there could be a link between the pits and the cancer which killed his son Beau
    • A book has tracked his son's exposure to carcinogenic fumes from pits in Iraq and Kosovo
  • Burn Pit Exposure 002

     

    Advocates for troops exposed to open air burn pits are recruiting allies on Capitol Hill to persuade the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand health care and compensation for sickened Veterans.

    Taking their fight to Congress on Tuesday, the group Burn Pits 360, joined by civilian physicians and researchers who treat and study affected Veterans, met with lawmakers and staff to press the VA into action.

    Service members in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were exposed to chemicals and fumes from large open air burn pits used to dispose of garbage, plastics and other hazardous materials. Some have respiratory diseases, rare cancers and neurological disorders their doctors attribute to environmental exposures.

    Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a member of the Army National Guard who served in Iraq in 2005, has sponsored a bill, H.R. 663, that would require the Defense Department to ensure that service members are enrolled in a VA registry for troops exposed to burn pits.

    "Daily reality was this dark cloud of smoke and toxins that came from the burn pits in our camps.... The stench was ever-present. We've seen the devastating toll it's taken with many of our friends," Gabbard said.

    More than 175,000 service members have signed on to the VA's Airborne Hazards and Open Air Burn Pit Registry. Millions more may have been exposed but are not in the registry, Gabbard said, a shortcoming that affects the understanding of the pits' impact.

    "Every day that passes without urgent action being taken by our government, more service members suffer," she said.

    A measure similar to Gabbard's has been introduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.

    Other bills now under consideration would allow family members of deceased or incapacitated Veterans to add their service member's name and experiences to the registry or, at the very least, update the registry when a Veteran dies.

    The Family Member Access to Burn Pit Registry Act, H.R. 1001, sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Acts, H.R. 1381 and S. 554, would let a designated person enroll a Veteran or update the registry.

    Castro also has introduced a bill that would change the VA's disability ratings process for obliterative bronchiolitis, a lung condition often mistaken for asthma that some troops exposed to burn pits have developed.

    The bill, H.R. 1005, would create a diagnostic code and a disability rating for the condition.

    "We can't afford to cast a blind eye to the level of exposure and, with it, the impact," Castro said. "Our service men and women's exposure to this toxicity is undeniable, and the level cannot be questioned."

    More than 250 burn pits were used at U.S. military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti to burn solid waste, including garbage, rubber, plastics, petroleum and medical waste.

    Dozens of service members filed a lawsuit against the contracting firm KBR, which operated many of the burn pits, but the Supreme Court in January rejected an appeal to a lower court's ruling that the issue is one Congress and the president need to solve.

    Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, was instrumental in 2013 in creating the VA burn pit registry. He expressed concern that the department plans to reduce its research budget by $17 billion and feels the government should be "fast-tracking" studies on burn pit-related illnesses.

    "Veterans sickened by burn pits deserve eligibility for lifesaving health care," Udall said. "We must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation. It's basically as simple as that."

    Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, sponsored the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, which passed the House and now awaits a Senate vote. He said he will introduce a bill that would make Veterans with burn pit-related pulmonary illnesses automatically eligible for compensation and expanded health care.

    "We don't have time for the perfect 20- to 30-year longitudinal cohort study... to recognize that burn pits are a risk factor and toxic to Veterans' health," said Ruiz, an emergency room physician. "We need to act now. We needed to act yesterday."

    The Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is available to personnel who served in Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn; those stationed in Djibouti on or after Sept. 11, 2001; and Veterans of Desert Shield and Desert Storm or anyone who served in the southwest Asia operational theatre on or after Aug. 2, 1990.

    According to Burn Pits 360, 130 of its members have died from diseases related to environmental exposures. Nearly 100 members have been diagnosed with brain cancer, including glioblastoma, a relatively rare disease in persons younger than 45. An additional 139 have skin cancer, and 116 have lymphoma.

    Burn Pits 360 Executive Director Rosie Torres said the VA, which has contracted with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to conduct a systemic review of available scientific literature on the topic, is engaging in "delay tactics."

    "Our fate now rests in Congress," she said in a news release.

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  • Toxic Exposure

     

    TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Veterans with health problems caused by exposure to toxic chemicals known as PFAS would be eligible for federal health care services under legislation proposed in Congress.

    The bill introduced Thursday would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cover treatment for ailments related to PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

    The chemicals are used widely as a water, stain and grease repellent. They’re also a key ingredient in firefighting foams used for training exercises on military bases. Experts say they are linked to cancers and numerous other illnesses.

    Among lawmakers sponsoring the bill are Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters and Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan.

    They say many Veterans have been exposed to the chemicals, along with people living near bases who may have drunk contaminated water.

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  • Burn Pits 008

     

    EXCLUSIVE – Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was instrumental in guiding U.S. troops during the Iraq War, says that America’s service members should be receiving assistance for the mounting medical issues that they fear have come as a result of being exposed to burn pits while stationed at military bases.

    Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. Central Command and Multi-National Force-Iraq, said it’s time for the service members exposed to the dangers of burn pits -- and who say they have been abandoned by the Veterans Affairs Department and Washington – to be provided with proper care.

    “It's a sacred obligation,” Petraeus, a retired four-star general, told Fox News during an exclusive interview at his Manhattan office. “And by and large, our country does an extraordinary amount for our Veterans and for those who are serving in uniform, and for their families.”

    “But comparing what our VA does to any other country's care of Veterans...this is the gold standard. Certainly, a gold standard that can always improve, without question. This is an issue, though, where we have a sacred obligation, and we need to meet that obligation.”

    The haphazard method of getting rid of trash, chemicals and even medical waste -- in open-air burn pits -- during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan generated numerous pollutants, including carbon monoxide and dioxin — the same chemical compound found in Agent Orange, the dangerous defoliant used during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971.

    As early as Operation Desert Storm in 1991, burn pits were used on U.S. military bases in Iraq. At the height of the Iraq War in 2005, more than 300,000 troops were stationed there and potentially exposed to the smoke and fumes from burn pits. Estimates place the number of burn pits around that time at 63.

    Thousands of Veterans and former contractors returned from the Middle East and have developed cancer, respiratory problems and blood disorders from what they claim is their exposure to toxins from the flaming pits. More than 140,000 active-service members and retirees have put their names on a Burn Pit Registry created by the Veterans Administration.

    Petraeus offered an explanation when asked about why burn pits were used on military bases, conceding that the realities of war kept concerns about how to dispose of waste a low priority at that time.

    "At that time we weren't worried about burn pits. We were worried about just getting enough water for our troops in the really hot summer," he says. "We were looking forward to the time where we might get some real food, real rations, as opposed to MREs and so forth."

    The general explained how the rebuilding of Iraq’s infrastructure and the troop surge in 2007 were the high priorities at that time, but that the potential danger of burn pits was undeniable.

    “They obviously fought us back. But over time, in that tour, in particular, you start noticing other issues,” Petraeus said. “So, yes, there is serious combat going on. But you’re noticing that there’s this massive burn pit that is up-wind of us. So it blows over this huge base, Camp Victory, where we had 25,000 or more soldiers based and stationed.”

    “We had a number of other locations, again, where we had these burn pits. And you start to notice it more and more. And I got more and more concerned during that time -- I mean, it'd been something I'd noticed previously,” he said. “But now I realize that we've got all these soldiers who are, on really bad days, inhaling whatever it is that's being burned in these pits.”

    Petraeus recalled during the sit-down that requests to install incinerators were made during the time of the surge and followed up when he moved to Central Command, but that it presented issues of its own.

    “Well, it was something that had to be done for a long period of time,” he said of burn-pit disposal. “But at a certain point, it set in that perhaps there’s a better way of doing it.”

    “Incinerators were actually brought in in some cases. And then there were even problems just getting incinerators to work. Unfortunately, sometimes it was easier still just to put it in a hole and burn it.”

    Petraeus points out that our troops during that time were at what he calls a “survival stage” and many options did not exist to dispose of the massive amounts of waste generated on our military operations.

    “You have to do something with that. And now it's way beyond just human waste,” he says. “It's also all of the byproducts of just daily life. And a lot of that gets dumped into a hole in the ground, and gasoline, or whatever it is -- poured on it, and someone -- torches it. And it's the way of disposing of what otherwise can no longer be buried.”

    The general conceded that this crude method had persisted for a long time and that as bases grew in certain areas, burn pits also grew significantly.

    “The results of those, this enormous plume of black smoke and so forth was very, very noticeable,” Petraeus recalled. “[W]hen the wind was blowing and the burn pit was in operation at a number of these different bases.”

    “Needless to say, you'd try to put it so the wind wouldn't blow it over there. But the winds vary. And they changed. And there was never any perfect method to that.”

    Since 2013, Petraeus has been with global investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts [KKR], where he serves as chair of their KKR Global Institute. He has also thrown his support behind efforts made in Washington to bring reform to the complicated process many Veterans go through when they file a claim through the Veterans Administration.

    In July, Petraeus sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to consider backing the Burn Pits Accountability Act – a recent bill brought before Capitol Hill by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Brian Mast, R-Fla.

    “I know that you share the sense of obligation that virtually all Americans have to those who have stepped forward at a time of war,” he wrote in the open letter.

    While steps toward reform are underway, there still is cause for concern for our troops who are currently in Iraq.

    A recent report from Fox News shows that burn pits are still being used in at least one military base in Iraq.

    In a series of images obtained exclusively by Fox News, a burn pit near Camp Taji, Iraq, is seen spewing thick clouds of black smoke into the air on a near-daily basis. According to one soldier stationed at the base, the pits are set ablaze as many as five times a week. The images were taken on and around June 3.

    The pits, seen in the pictures originally provided, are situated in a part of Camp Taji known as an “amber zone” — an area adjacent to U.S. Military operations where Iraqi National Forces operate. The soldier told Fox News that while the unit’s part of the camp is not using burn pits for trash disposal, it’s not exactly clear where their trash ends up.

    When asked about his thoughts on the burning still going on so close to where U.S. troops are stationed, General Petraeus expressed trepidation when seeing photos of the pits being operated in Taji’s amber zone.

    “It's actually the Iraqis who are using those now. But that still is a concern for us. And it should be,” he says. “I think as time has gone by we have come to realize that this is a bigger issue than clearly it was in the earlier years of these two wars.”

    “And with that awareness, obviously we can certainly do a better job.”

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  • Tulsi Gabbard

     

    Marine Cpl. Nicholas James Wrobel passed away due to respiratory and cardiac failure. He was 24 years old. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jessica Sweet died of acute myelogenous leukemia. She was 30 years old and left behind a husband and three young children. Army Col. David McCracken lost his life to Glioblastoma Multiforme brain cancer at age 46, leaving behind his wife and children.

    All were exposed to the toxic fumes and chemicals released by burn pits while deployed.

    While over 175,000 Veterans have voluntarily registered their names in the Burn Pit Registry, the Department of Veterans Affairs has admitted there are 3.7 million service members who may be eligible due to their exposure to these same toxic burn pits.

    As a soldier in the Hawai’i Army National Guard, I deployed twice to the Middle East. Like everyone else in our camp, I breathed in the toxins from burn pits every single day. Many service members developed respiratory illnesses that we commonly called "the crud" — a persistent hacking cough that never seemed to go away. While deployed, we dealt with the ever-present residual stench from the burn pit fires.

    Burn pits have been used at U.S. military bases across the Middle East to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber, and other debris, releasing hazardous smoke into the air. While initially thought of as a temporary measure until incinerators were installed, many burn pits continued to operate, with some still in use today.

    Make no mistake: Burn pits are the Agent Orange of our generation of Veterans.

    After coming home, many of our friends started to come down with rare cancers, lung diseases, neurological disorders, respiratory problems, and more. Too many have died without their service-connected illness being acknowledged.

    More and more we hear of families whose loved ones returned from war only to be lost to the residual effects of burn pit exposure, many having lost the fight to get the care and support they needed from the VA.

    Our government must take action to recognize the toxins our service members have been exposed to during their service, research the effects, and provide the care they need. Otherwise, we will see a repetition of the same tragedy that our Vietnam Veterans exposed to Agent Orange decades ago went through.

    So far, the VA has rejected most disability compensation claims. This is unacceptable.

    Earlier this year, Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., and I joined forces and reintroduced our legislation, the Burn Pits Accountability Act. This legislation has over 170 co-sponsors and the support of over 30 healthcare and Veteran service organizations.

    Groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Burn Pits 360 are sounding the alarm. Last month, Burn Pits 360 brought affected military families to Capitol Hill. They were joined by physicians to share their stories and findings about the disastrous harm this crisis is doing to Veterans.

    When a patient seeks medical care, that care is improved when the physician has an accurate and detailed medical record of the patient. Our legislation requires the military to track and accurately report every service members’ exposure to burn pits as a necessary first step toward getting the treatment and care they need and deserve.

    This will ensure that we have the data necessary to better understand burn pits’ impact and ensure the VA has the resources and knowledge it needs to best treat and compensate those affected.

    Last year, I spoke with a Vietnam Veteran in Hilo, Hawai‘i, who was dying from cancer. He struggled to speak to me in a whisper just days before he passed away, and he shared the struggles he endured as he fought to get the VA to recognize his exposure to Agent Orange so he could get the care he needed.

    The last thing he said to me was, "You can’t help me, but promise me that you will help make sure no other Veterans go through what I’ve gone through."

    For him, and for every Veteran, Congress must take action to honor and care for those who have sacrificed so much, putting service above self. Let’s honor their service and pass the Burn Pits Accountability Act now.

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  • Burn Pit Awareness Bill

     

    The Vermont Senate approved a measure Thursday to raise awareness about the health hazards military personnel suffer from exposure to open burn pits while serving overseas.

    A 30-0 vote came after the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Jeanette White, cried and stopped several times as she recounted to senators the emotional testimony her committee had heard.

    White spoke haltingly as she recalled the words of June Heston, the widow of Brig. Gen. Mike Heston, who died of cancer last November, and retired Sgt. Wesley Black, a 33-year-old fighting colon cancer who described himself as a “dead man walking.” Both served overseas on deployments where burn pits were used to dispose of a variety of refuse, ignited with jet fuel.

    White, D-Windham, the chair of Senate Government Operations, said she didn’t want to get emotional laying out the reasons for S. 111, “but our meetings were anything but.”

    “I do apologize,” White said after stopping her presentation to regroup. “I didn’t think I’d do this.” She was reassured by presiding officer Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

    The toxins from the fumes, White said, pervade the body.

    “It is in their skin, their lungs, their eyes, their whole body. It has become a part of them,” White said.

    She said she was oblivious to the issue until told about Heston in December.

    “In my 16 years in the Senate, there have been many issues that have been emotional and passionate. But in all those years, this is the one that makes me really angry and really sad,” White said.

    Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the only other senator who spoke, recalled Heston’s two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Heston was deployed three times to Afghanistan and worked as close as 300 yards from open burn pits.

    “To watch his body disintegrate in front of our eyes was quite horrific,” Benning said.

    The bill aims to raise awareness in the medical community and among Veterans about the health problems from burn pits used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. It encourages military members who served in those areas to sign up for a national registry where the Veterans Administration is tracking health problems.

    White and members of her committee said a goal of increasing awareness was to have the federal government acknowledge the connection between burn pits and health problems sooner than it admitted Agent Orange caused health problems for military members who served in Vietnam.

    She said Vermont lawmakers couldn’t influence military policy on using burn pits, but “sometimes a groundswell can make a difference.”

    “Perhaps our small step…might make a difference,” White said, telling senators that other state legislators have requested the bill and the number of Vermonters on the national registry has increased 10 percent to just under 400 since the bill was introduced in January.

    The bill will go to the House after a final Senate vote. House leaders have promised the bill will be taken up this session, even though it did not meet the crossover deadline, according to White.

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  • Burn Pits Health Risks

     

    Thousands of Veterans say toxic smoke from trash fires at their military bases made them sick

    Tens of thousands of Veterans and service members stationed at military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan say exposure to trash fires or “burn pits” has left them with breathing problems and other chronic illnesses, including cancer. They are fighting for health benefits, but say the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is turning its back on them.

    Veterans say everything went into the burn pits — plastic water bottles, spent munitions, tires, human and medical waste. They say the heaping piles of trash were often then doused with jet fuel and lit on fire. The pits burned 24 hours a day in or next to their military bases.

    June Heston, of Richmond, Vermont, lost her husband Mike Heston last year.

    "How can that even happen? I was mad. So mad," she said.

    Brig. Gen. Mike Heston was in the Vermont National Guard and volunteered for three tours of duty in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

    "He was a soldier’s soldier," June Heston said. "It meant everything."

    But in 2016, nearly four years after his last tour, Mike Heston started having back pain. He went to a slew of doctors who performed countless tests. He lost 75 pounds. For almost a year, no one could figure out what was going on.

    "I said, 'I feel like he's dying and I'm the only one who sees it,'" Heston recalled, choking back tears.

    Mike Heston was dying. He had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But it would take new doctors in Boston and an article the Veteran stumbled upon to connect the possible dots. It was about a young mother in the Minnesota National Guard, Amie Muller, whose family blamed her pancreatic cancer, and eventual death, on the burn pits at her military base in Iraq. The same kind of burn pits in Mike Heston complained to his wife about at his base.

    "The military failed him. The doctors failed him," June Heston said. "I was angry."

    The military started using burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Veterans tell NBC10 Boston Investigators they were the fastest and cheapest way to get rid of trash. Veterans say the garbage was often doused with jet fuel and set on fire. They burned day and night.

    Dr. Tom Abrams, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said he’d never heard of burn pits before meeting the Hestons.

    "It was shocking to learn about them," Abrams said. "I asked, 'why is this happening? How could this be happening? This is clearly a threat to health.'"

    It was Abrams' team that found Heston's cancer and while he can't prove it definitively, he told the VA the exposure "....more likely than not..." made Heston sick.

    "Mike and the other patients are the canaries in the coal mine," he said. "And I think we're going to see more and more of these patients with cancers of all stripes."

    Abrams' letter helped Heston gain disability medical benefits through the VA. Veterans are only eligible for health insurance for five years after service unless their illness is determined to be service related.

    The VA has approved just 20 percent of the nearly 12,000 medical claims related to burn pits over the last decade. The agency admits there are toxins in the smoke, but insists most health effects are temporary.

    "In some people it may be making them sick," said Dr. Drew Helmer, who directs the VA's War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in New Jersey. "Who it is making sick, how many people it is making sick and what is the sickness—those are still questions we don’t have answers for."

    The VA says it is continuing to study the issue and in 2014, Congress mandated they create a burn pit registry to collect data on exposed Veterans to better evaluate the issue and potential risk. Nearly 170,000 Veterans and servicemen have signed up. Forty-two hundred of them are from New England.

    June Heston said her husband did sign up for the registry once he had learned of it.

    "He said, 'You don't start a registry unless you know there's a problem,'" she recalled.

    Veterans and families call the registry a start, but want more education for doctors, especially civilian practitioners, and guaranteed medical care for Veterans exposed. Those health benefits could cost the VA billions.

    Heston lost her warrior in late 2018. The husband and father of two was 58 years old.

    Heston says her husband told her to keep fighting for other Veterans.

    Families often compare burn pit exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam, which was eventually linked to cause cancer and other diseases in exposed Veterans. By the time the VA recognized the illnesses as service related, many Veterans had already died without VA health benefits.

    "Most of these men and women will die before any responsibility is taken and the help that they need is given," June Heston said. "That's the reality."

    The Department of Defense turned down the NBC10 Boston Investigators request for an interview. They said they are now largely using incinerators, a more expensive method of getting rid of trash, but the military admits burn pits are still being used near about a dozen bases in the Middle East.

    Legislators have introduced a bill called the Burn Pits Accountability Act that would require the military to track service members and Veterans exposed to burn pits, require health evaluations and share data about burn pits with the public. It was referred to the House Subcommittee on Health.

    If you or a loved one were exposed to burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Djibouti and you'd like to share your story with Ally Donnelly, she may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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  • Tom Udall

     

    WASHINGTON, D.C. ― At two events Tuesday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) continued his push to improve care for Veterans affected by exposure to toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan: during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, and at the 2019 Congressional Burn Pits Briefing.

    During the hearing, Udall questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie on his commitment to continuing burn pit exposure research and urged Wilkie to recognize burn pit exposure as a presumed service-connected condition, a standard that would sufficiently acknowledge the negative effects of burn pits and would make it easier for Veterans to receive care.

    “Last year’s appropriation of $27 million supports a partnership between the VA and [Department of Energy] for Big Data Science. And much of the work is being done by researchers at New Mexico’s own Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. I would encourage you to continue and increase your work with the national labs. Do you support making the Big Data Science program an annual appropriation? To expand the program to benefit more Veterans? For instance, expand data analysis of Veterans who were exposed to burn pits?,” Udall asked Wilkie.

    Wilkie responded that he “would not see what happened to Veterans from Vietnam and Agent Orange happen again,” referring to the Veterans exposed to Agent Orange who had to endure decades of delay before finally receiving VA care and benefits. Wilkie committed to “doing everything [VA] can so we don’t see a repeat of what happened with Agent Orange.”

    Udall followed up on this statement, asking, “Over the past two years, Congress has appropriated $10 million to improve and expand the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which was established through legislation I introduced in 2011. This year, you did not request additional funds for this account. Why not and could you explain how you intend to follow up on the commitment you made?”

    In response, Dr. Richard A. Stone, the executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health Administration, himself a burn pit-exposed Veteran, replied that “we must continue to work to define what the exact effects of exposure to these agents are.”

    Finally, Udall urged Wilkie to “aggressively do the work” to establish a service presumption for medical conditions that result from burn pit exposure. By recognizing burn pit exposure as a presumed service-connected condition, the VA could ensure that Veterans would no longer have to jump through hoops in order to receive the care and treatment they are owed.

    Udall has long championed efforts in Congress to ensure that Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits receive better access to the medical treatment they need. In 2013, Udall co-authored legislation to establish a burn pit registry -- similar to the one created for Agent Orange after the Vietnam War -- to help Veterans, doctors, and the VA monitor Veterans' health and ultimately improve care for Veterans that may have been exposed to toxic chemicals while they were deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. This year, Udall introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate, the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act, to further strengthen and enhance the burn pit registry.

    Last month, Udall met with Wilkie to discuss the urgent need to enact this bipartisan legislation to help Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Udall also raised concerns regarding staffing shortages and decreasing capabilities at the New Mexico VA Health Care System, and other issues critical to ensuring Veterans in New Mexico receive the benefits they have earned.

    Earlier in the day, Udall also urged Congress to help Veterans exposed to burn pits during his remarks at the 2019 Congressional Burn Pits Briefing, which focused on Congress’s ongoing legislative efforts to support Veterans and those impacted by burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    “Our government must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation. It’s as simple as that,” said Udall. “And if the VA requires additional research -- the federal government should fast track it.”

    “Let’s work together to make sure the Senate passes the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act,” Udall continued. “To make sure the VA expeditiously and effectively utilizes the additional $5 million dollars it received. And make sure the necessary research is done to establish eligibility, secure treatment, and save Veterans’ lives.”

    The full text of Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery is below.

    Thank you Burn Pits 360 for your tireless work on behalf of burn pit victims. Burn Pits 360 has helped so many Veterans connect with critical health care and social services. And your advocacy before Congress has made the difference. Making sure that service men and women exposed to burn pits receive the care they have earned must be a bipartisan priority in Congress.

    Two of my constituents — Master Seargent Jessey Baca and his wife Maria — introduced me to this issue. And inspired my years of work on it.

    Jessey risked his life maintaining fighter jets during two tours in Iraq. Jessey and Maria came to me after his tours of duty – worried that his exposure to burn pits overseas caused his debilitating constrictive bronchiolitis. Jessey and Maria have faced his illnesses with courage and grace. And they have fought for other Veterans to make sure they get the treatment they need and deserve.

    Like Leroy and Rosie Torres, courageous founders of Burn Pits 360, and so many of you here today.

    The use of pits to burn toxins and hazardous chemicals was widespread in Iran and Afghanistan. And tens of thousands of brave men and women were exposed.

    I’m proud to have introduced the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry. Its passage in 2013 established the registry we know today — which now has more than 173,000 service members and Veterans on it.

    That’s an accomplishment.

    Last year, in the Defense Appropriations bill, we secured an additional $5 million dollars to improve the burn pit registry in accordance with the recommendations from the National Academies of Sciences.

    And we pushed the Veterans Administration to work with the Department of Defense to research rare cancers that often result from exposure to burn pits.

    We have made progress. But our work is far from over.

    Our goal is to recognize burn pit exposure as a presumptive service connection.

    The VA says it wants more documentation. So, we won’t rest until we get this done.

    In February, we introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act.

    The House of Representatives already passed that bill -- unanimously. I’m glad Representatives Castro and Ruiz are here today. They are leaders on this issue.

    That bill makes sure that the registry can be updated with the cause of death of a registered individual; Allows a designated individual or immediate family member to report the cause of death of a registered individua, and establishes a process for a registered individual to designate who can report to the registry on their behalf.

    The Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act is in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. And we must push for it to be heard. This is a bipartisan bill. And there is no good reason the Senate should not quickly pass it, like the House did.

    Last month, I personally met with Secretary Wilkie to urge him to support the act.

    I also expressed concern with the VA’s recommendation to cut $17 million dollars from its medical research budget. I’m worried this cut would slice into burn pit research, as well as other important research essential to the health and well-being of Veterans.

    I pressed the Secretary to reverse that recommendation and to commit to funding the research necessary to establish a service presumption. Because Veterans sickened by burn pits deserve eligibility for life-saving health care.

    Our government must make sure these patriots receive care for the illnesses and injuries they received in service to our nation. It’s as simple as that.

    And if the VA requires additional research -- the federal government should fast track it.

    Everyone here today understands the imperative of this work.

    Let’s work together to make sure the Senate passes the Burn Pit Registry Enhancement Act. To make sure the VA expeditiously and effectively utilizes the additional $5 million dollars it received.

    And make sure the necessary research is done to establish eligibility, secure treatment, and save Veterans’ lives.

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  • Burn Pits 009

     

    During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, burn pits were a common way to dispose of trash and human waste. Though this may have been the norm since waste management facilities weren’t available, it has been identified as another hazard service that contractors and service members may have been exposed to during deployment.

    Most service members who had direct contact with burn pits may have found that the immediate side effects were short-term, dissipating rapidly once no longer exposed. These include:

    • Eye irritation and burning
    • Cough and throat irritation
    • Difficulties breathing
    • Skin irritation and rashes

    Unfortunately, the long-term consequences may be less noticeable at first and much more severe. Current research continues as scientists try and decipher what long-term health effects may occur due to Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits. In an effort to gain information on this growing concern, VA has an open registry for Veterans and service members to sign up. Veterans are encouraged to document their exposures and report health concerns through an online questionnaire ; thus far, over 170,000 Veterans and service members have completed the 40-minute survey between 2014 and April 2019. This is not a health screening – it is for documentation purposes only, as VA is trying to conduct research on long-term effects. However, you can schedule a free health exam with a VA provider once completed.

    If you are a Veteran who was exposed to toxic chemicals or hazardous materials such as burn pit smoke, depleted uranium, sulfur fire, chemical warfare agents, chromium, or suffered injuries due to extreme heat, toxic embedded fragments, explosions, noise, or became ill due to infectious diseases (such as malaria, brucellosis, West Nile Virus, rabies, etc.), you are highly encouraged to contact your VA primary care provider OR your local VA environmental health coordinator to receive appropriate health assessments and determine if you qualify for disability benefits. You may consider joining the Gulf War Registry and the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

    An organization in the fight is Burnpits 360. One of MCVC’s own members, Stacey Pennington, lost her brother, SSG Steven Ochs, to the effects of burn pits. Stacey and Rosie have worked determinedly side-by-side, testifying before Congress, to not only get this issue recognized, but to advocate for research and treatment.

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  • Website Updates 002 

  • Widow Burnpit Exp

     

    June Heston is angry.

    She lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Michael Heston, last November after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Heston, who also served as the deputy adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, served three tours overseas in Afghanistan, all of them including exposure to burn pits.

    On Wednesday, Sen. Jeanette White and Sen. Pro Tem Tim Ashe outlined legislation designed to raise awareness for doctors and soldiers about the symptoms and illnesses associated with inhaling the fumes from the garbage, including human and medical waste, plastics and batteries as well as weaponry, that is burned during overseas deployments.

    The legislation targets the estimated 10,000 Vermont National Guard soldiers who have served in the areas with burn pits, primarily Afghanistan and Iraq, to join a national registry in order to stay informed. So far, 366 Vermont Veterans have signed up for the registry.

    “You think that when you came back, you’ve made it through the battlefield, when you’ve come home that you’re good. And then you’re told that you’re not,” June Heston said Wednesday, choking back tears.

    “I’m angry. I lost my husband. My kids lost their father. And for what?” she said. “Every time he was called to duty, he did it. He did exactly what he was asked.” In addition to his military service, Heston was a Vermont state trooper for 26 years. He and June lived in Richmond and raised a daughter, Kelsey, and son, Keegan.

    June Heston said her husband was approved for disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — she has received a portion after his death — but he was denied disability benefits from the Department of Defense, which would have included health insurance.

    She also said no one in the military has apologized.

    “An apology would mean responsibility,” June Heston said. She said no lawsuit is planned. She will be testifying before Congress at an unknown future date. Efforts to hold private contractors accountable have been unsuccessful in the courts, including a recent Supreme Court rejection.

    Heston case was featured in a series on burn pit exposure last year on WCAX-TV.

    June Heston praised the idea behind the Vermont legislation to raise awareness within the medical community about burn pit exposure. June Heston said doctors in Vermont were “clueless” about what was causing her husband’s medical problems. He was 58 when he died and served three tours — seven, 15 and 12 months — between 2003 and 2012 during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

    Service members have suffered brain tumors and other cancers, as well as reported respiratory problems, after working at or near burn pits, large open waste facilities ignited with jet fuel.

    Ashe and White said the U.S. armed forces and government have been slow in the past to acknowledge medical issues involving the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and from Gulf War syndrome for those exposed to toxic oil fumes while serving in Iraq.

    “After a period of equivocation, the U.S. government has usually acknowledged what Veterans know too well — that their illnesses and suffering are real, that it is connected to their military service and that the U.S. government must treat and compensate the Veterans,” the legislation says. Ashe called the burn pit controversy a public health “ticking time bomb.”

    The controversy over the burn pits has reached Congress, which has vowed to hold hearings, according to the New York Times. Former Vice President Joe Biden has weighed in, speculating that toxic substances from burn pits contributed to the cancer that claimed his son, Beau, who served in the Delaware Army National Guard and died in 2015.

    The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied the bulk of the claims filed. According to the Times, more than 11,500 disability compensation claims have been filed since 2007 with a medical condition related to burn pit exposure with about 2,300 granted. Most of the denials were for a “lack of evidence” the illness was service-related.

    The proposed Vermont legislation notes Veterans Affairs provides contradictory information on the health impacts of exposure to the pits. On the one hand, the department says research does not show “long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits” but then goes on to list health effects from the toxic smoke.

    Heston said the call for more research is unnecessary and the connection is clear between the illnesses and the burn pit exposure. The legislation calls on the federal government to “not repeat past patterns of denial” and acknowledge the connection.

    The legislation calls on the Vermont Health Department to develop educational material to inform Veterans about the health effects and would require the Vermont National Guard and Vermont Veterans Affairs Office to contact service members who served in areas of exposure.

    White said she proposed the legislation after meeting with a constituent in the Guard who brought the issue to her attention.

    White chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, which oversees military issues. Her committee will begin taking testimony on the bill as early as this week.

    “We are saddened anytime we lose one of our own,” said Guard public affairs officer Captain Mikel Arcovitch. “Brig. Gen. Heston’s death came far too early in his life and we are greatly saddened by his loss. He was a tremendous man and leader.”

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