Exposure to Toxic Chemicals Has Become a Top Issue for Veteran Organizations

joint session of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committee
Seven veterans organizations detail their 2020 priorities before a joint session of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs committee on Feb. 26. (Military.com photo/Dorothy Mills-Gregg)

Toxic exposure, a high veterans suicide rate and accommodating the Department of Veterans Affairs' fastest growing demographic, women, are among the issues veterans service organizations (VSOs) have brought up to Congress this year.

In hearings held Tuesday and Wednesday, the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees jointly heard from eight VSOs about their priorities for 2020. Lawmakers will hear from more VSOs next week.

Concerns over toxic exposure are not limited to Vietnam War-era veterans. The VSOs are also targeting threats to current service members.

"While we were focused on our toxic exposures and their effects on our descendants, we could not have imagined that similar problems would arise in those who followed us in the military," said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. "Because of our efforts on Agent Orange, we became aware of toxic exposures issues arising in the Gulf War veterans and later the post-9/11 veterans. And recently, we have become aware of the toxic exposures facing our military here at home."

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From the 1950s to the 1980s, water was contaminated by industrial solvents, benzene and other chemicals at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Recently, leaked base memos showed dangerously high levels of hexavalent chromium in an aircraft hangar at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. And polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in firefighting foam have contaminated water supplies near dozens of military bases.

Rowan also shared the Wounded Warrior Project's concerns over how the military destroyed waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Besides being exposed to the substances noted earlier, the military decided it would be a great idea to burn their used equipment and other items in giant burn pits that have been burning for decades now," he said. "The toxic exposure for this misadventure is too numerous to mention."

Rowan told Congress it should consider reauthorizing and expanding the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to include veterans of all eras. Under this act, the VA works with the National Academy of Medicine to hold panels every two years to review the science on Agent Orange exposure and its associations with certain health conditions.

"Toxic exposure has killed more military veterans than any of our enemies have," he said.

Another concern VSOs voiced to lawmakers is the high rate of veteran suicide: About 17 veterans commit suicide every day; more than half of them were not in the VA system.

"VA medical centers are amazing," said Jan Brown, American Veterans national commander. "I refer people there all the time. However, I would not choose to go there to get mentally healthy."

Brown said that AMVETS has found that "most veterans drop out of VA mental health services after their first visit."

"We insinuate that the VA mental health is world class, second to none, yet we're not asking the question, 'Why are veterans running for the doors?' Instead, we're blaming the victim, inferring it's the veteran's fault to not stay involved in the program," Brown said.

She said patients don't want to sit in "psychotropic fogs" at VA hospitals, which are now a "hard to manage, mental health conglomerate."

The high veteran suicide rate is why Felix Garcia III, national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said his organization is supporting S. 785, the "Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019."

"It will ensure that no veteran slips through the cracks," Garcia said. "The bill would also hold the VA accountable for its mental health care and suicide prevention efforts, by examining how the VA manages the suicide prevention resources and how the VA provides seamless care and information sharing for veterans seeking mental health."

Brown said the issue is especially serious for female veterans, the VA's fastest growing cohort.

"The rate at which women veterans choose to end their own lives is twice the number as women who have never served," she said. "Part of the reason involves the unhealed and untreated scars that result from sexual assaults, only to be intensified by the mishandling of investigation, after the assault is reported."

Stephen Whitehead, Disabled American Veterans national commander, said about one in four female veterans reported "inappropriate unwanted" comments or behavior by men at VA facilities.

"All veterans, no matter their gender, race or sexual orientation, should have equitable access to all of the benefits and services, and should feel welcome and safe when accessing the care they earned," he said.

To ensure women have access to gender-sensitive and specialized health care, Whitehouse said Congress should pass the "Deborah Sampson Act," a version of which was passed by the House last year. It would, among other things, establish an Office of Women's Health.

The Military Officers Association of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Student Veterans of America and Paralyzed Veterans of America, along with a couple of other VSOs, are set to testify on their 2020 priorities Tuesday.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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