Last week, the halls of Congress became the latest battleground in a campaign by tens of thousands of veterans seeking acknowledgment of the health problems they suffer from exposure to open-air refuse burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Navy veteran Lauren Price of New Port Richey was right in the middle of the action. The founder of the Veteran Warriors non-profit organization, Price spoke out for the cause in a statement to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Heath hearing.
Price takes issue with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ contention that there isn’t enough proof linking exposure to health issues and that more study is needed. The argument was reiterated at the hearing by Ralph Erickson, the department’s chief post-deployment health services consultant,
The VA, Price insisted, already acknowledges a need to consider exposure to burn pits when determining whether a veteran deserves compensation.
As proof, she points to a little-known 2010 VA document on environmental health hazards.
Officially called "Training Letter 10-03," the 25-page document urges VA benefits raters to be mindful of burn-pit exposure.
At one location in particular, Joint Base Balad in Iraq, jet fuel was used to help incinerate plastics, metal and aluminum cans, rubber, paints, solvents, petroleum and lubricant products, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, wood waste and medical and human waste, according to the letter.
"The pits do not effectively burn the volume of waste generated, and smoke from the burn pit blows over bases and into living areas," the letter said.
A 2007 Pentagon study found that most air samples taken there showed individual chemicals did not exceed military exposure guidelines, but the confidence level in those findings was considered "low to medium," the letter said.
The bottom line: Smoke was found to contain chemicals known to affect the respiratory system, skin, eyes, liver, kidneys, central nervous, cardiovascular, reproductive and peripheral nervous systems and gastrointestinal tract.
The VA said in the letter that while such information is not meant to influence examiners about the causes of any disability, they should "ensure that such opinions are fully informed based on all the known objective facts."
"If veterans feel their military service has caused a disability, VA encourages them to file a disability compensation claim," said VA spokesman Curt Cashour.
Price has support for her belief that VA raters should pay more attention to the training letter.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, "has read the training letter and would give more weight to it than VA leadership seems to be doing when it comes to disability benefits," said Summer Robertson, a Bilirakis spokeswoman.
Official doubt about the link between burn pits and health woes is driving a legislative effort to force VA to presume a connection.
Bilirakis, vice chairman of the influential House Veterans Affairs Committee, has been working closely with Price and her organization on drafting legislation giving burn pit exposure a status similar to Agent Orange when it comes to presuming a connection between exposure and health problems.
He expects to have a bill out of the drafting phase and filed very soon, Robertson said, and is garnering bipartisan support.
After the hearing, some veterans visited Bilirakis’ office to share their personal stories.
"He was incredibly moved by their experiences," Robertson said. "Their personal struggles strengthened his resolve to move this issue forward as quickly as possible."
The Department of Defense announced last week the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Octave Shield, a mission in support of U.S. Africa Command objectives.
Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Conrad, 26, of Chandler, Arizona, died June 8, in Somalia of injuries sustained from enemy indirect fire. The incident is under investigation.
Conrad was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 50 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 54 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.