Exposed to Environmental Toxins in the Military? A House Committee Wants to Hear from You

Fighter aircraft over burning oil fields in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm
F-16A Fighting Falcon, F-15C Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle fighter aircraft fly over burning oil field sites in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Air Force archive photo)

The House Veterans Affairs Committee wants to hear from troops and veterans about their environmental exposures while serving in the U.S. military.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has set up an online survey for veterans asking about what they've experienced as effects of toxic exposure.

The request for help gauging the impact of exposure was announced just before Takano's planned roundtable with veterans organizations Wednesday, titled "The True Cost of our Promise to Toxic Exposed Veterans."

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The survey seeks info on the extent of exposure, health conditions possibly related to environmental pollutants, the VA's response and what lawmakers can do to help affected veterans.

"Your responses will help the Committee better understand veterans' experiences with toxic exposure and how Congress can help ensure these veterans receive the benefits they have earned and deserve," Takano wrote in an announcement last week.

Takano is the lead sponsor of the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, which would broadly expand affected veterans' access to health care disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The $282 billion proposed legislation would designate 23 diseases as presumed to be related to battlefield environmental exposures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It also would expand eligibility to veterans who have faced challenges applying for benefits, including those who served in Vietnam and have hypertension, as well as Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants outside the war zone.

An unknown number of post-9/11, Persian Gulf War and Vietnam-era veterans are suffering from respiratory illnesses, cancer and other diseases that many believe are related to exposure to chemicals, radiation and heavy metals during their military service.

A measure similar to Takano's proposal, the estimated $223 billion Comprehensive and Overdue Support for Troops, or COST, of War Act, has been introduced in the Senate by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

The roundtable will be held virtually, an opportunity for committee members to "check in" with veterans groups and advocates on Congress' "efforts" to date on supporting those affected, Takano said in a press release Thursday.

"We made a promise to servicemembers when we sent them into harm's way that we would care for them when they came home. The [Congressional Budget Office] estimate is in -- we now know the true cost of that promise, and we cannot renege on our responsibility," Takano said. "We cannot try to pinch pennies when it comes to covering the care for toxic exposed veterans."

More than 65 Democrats and two Republicans -- Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin -- have signed on as co-sponsors of Takano's bill.

In supporting the legislation, as well as other bills designed to provide benefits to veterans sickened by their exposure, Fitzpatrick said that "no veteran should die waiting for care."

"Our veterans are heroes and deserve to be treated as such, yet the VA and [Department of Defense] continue to deny their earned care," he said in a statement released last year.

The House hearing will air on the committee's website and its YouTube channel at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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