In his first press conference as defense secretary, Mark Esper said Wednesday he wants to work with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to ensure that service members who are ill as a result of military environmental exposures get the support and care they need.
Responding to a question on the health risks, including various cancers, of military environmental exposures, Esper said the VA "has the lead" on determining whether an illness is presumed to be related to military service -- a decision that accelerates benefits awards.
But, he added, as secretary, he wants to "make sure [DoD] is doing everything we can to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they transition out of service."
"We want to make sure we tackle some of the things [being talked] about," Esper said, referring to a question about incidents of cancer and other illnesses among service members and young military veterans.
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"This goes back to my days in the service. After my tour in the Gulf War, you may recall, we had Gulf War Syndrome ... and many folks still suffer from it," he said. "[Secretary Wilkie] is completely committed to our service members and veterans, and this is one of the areas where I want to improve."
In one of his first acts as secretary, Esper created a task force to study per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, man-made chemicals in firefighting foam that have contaminated more than 400 military bases and may be linked to cancer and a number of other medical conditions.
More than 175,000 service members and veterans have enrolled in the VA's Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry, a database for personnel who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region that tracks health consequences related to exposure to burn pits and other regional environmental conditions.
Many say they have respiratory illnesses, cancer, rashes and unexplained symptoms they attribute to living and working near burn pits used to destroy garbage and waste.
Troops and their families, veterans and communities adjoining military bases also have raised concerns about ground and water contamination at installations and environmental hazards in combat zones, including lead and heavy metals, depleted uranium, airborne pollutants, chemical and nerve agents, and radiation.
Studies show that, while the incidence rates of some cancers are lower in military personnel than the general public, others -- including breast and prostate cancers -- are significantly higher.
And anecdotally, military personnel and post-9/11 veterans are reporting cancers considered rare among young people, including brain tumors like glioblastoma and pancreatic cancer.
Other diseases known to affect military personnel and veterans disproportionately include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; Parkinsons; and heart disease.
Earlier this year, a dozen veterans and health organizations joined forces to press the Trump administration and Congress for more studies and support on military environmental exposures.
Members of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military, or TEAM, Coalition include Burn Pits 360, Wounded Warrior Project, the American Legion, National Veterans Legal Service Program, California Communities Against Toxics, Cease Fire Campaign, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, Hunter Seven, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and Veteran Warriors.
The group plans to review all current resources related to exposure and available data and push for additional research, medical treatment and disability compensation for thousands of affected service members and veterans.