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Sen. Brown urges committee to give a hearing to veterans exposed to poison

By Matt Westerhold • Dec 24, 2018 at 6:00 PM

Ohio’s senator considering a 2020 presidential campaign came out swinging Friday on behalf of veterans suffering illnesses due to toxic exposure caused by burn pits.

“If you were exposed to poison while serving our country, you deserve the benefits you’ve earned, period, no exceptions,” Sherrod Brown told the Sandusky Register, renewing his effort to get the issue before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It is unacceptable that many of our brave service members who were exposed to toxic chemicals as a result of burn pits still have to fight for the care and benefits they need and deserve.”

A local activist, Susan Zeier, has been lobbying Brown and other Congressional representatives for the last two years to host hearings and allow veterans to testify about the life-threatening and, in many cases, terminal illnesses they are suffering. They come as a result of toxic exposure to the smoke and air surrounding the football field-sized burn pits that were maintained in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. military personnel were stationed.

There were hundreds of burn pits spread across the two countries. In many instances, U.S. soldiers lived and worked right next to them, Zeier said. Commanders burned everything — from chemicals to weapons to computer hardware — in the pits to keep the materials from falling into enemy hands. 

Zeier said she focused her attention on Brown because he is a member of the committee. She said she spoke with Brown in the past, and prior efforts to open a Congressional hearing failed to get the committee’s approval.

But Brown is trying again to bring to topic to an open hearing.       

“The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee needs to hold a hearing and get to the bottom of this for our veterans and their families immediately. We cannot allow burn pits to become this generation’s Agent Orange,” Brown told the Register after the newspaper inquired about Zeier’s efforts to meet with him. 

Agent Orange is a defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The strategy was to destroy vegetation and deny the enemy its ability to produce food. But as many as 2.5 million U.S. soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange and cases of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses became pronounced.

The U.S. government fought granting benefits for veterans who claimed illnesses caused by Agent Orange for many years before finally recognizing its damaging effects in 1994. Today there are 14 illnesses directly associated to exposure to Agent Orange, but some veterans still are having problems getting benefits. Brown has also worked on behalf of those veterans. 

Like Brown, Zeier has described the U.S. military’s response to veterans suffering from toxic exposure from burn pits as being similar to how they treated veterans suffering from illnesses caused by Agent Orange. 

“I’m thrilled Sen. Brown called for a hearing,” Zeier said. “But it will have to be voted on and approved by the rest of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.”

Brown’s office is in the process of lobbying other members of the committee, Zeier said, but she’s fearful the other senators won’t approve a hearing with veterans testifying. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, is the chairman of the committee. 

Brown’s office told Zeier that he is lobbying the other senators to support a hearing. She said she expects to meet with Brown and deliver to him 1,400 letters she’s collected from veterans and veterans’ families asking for a hearing. 

“They are going to submit every letter,” Zeier said. 

She and other advocates asking the U.S. military to recognize illnesses caused by burn pits contend that as many as 250,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from toxic exposure. The illnesses range from rare lung diseases that are causing wretched deaths to cancers and other chronic illnesses. 

“Some veterans think the government is putting off any action and is simply willing to let these veterans die without acknowledging what happened to them,” Zeier said. 

Burn pits were not properly maintained, even though the government’s own guidelines called for proper incineration to protect service personnel and the general populations from toxic exposure, according to the website burnpits.org. Burn pits were kept in continuous operation next to barracks where U.S. soldiers were housed and where they worked.

A company that was a major contractor at the start of the Iraq war, Halliburton, was recently relieved of responsibility when a lawsuit filed on behalf of sick veterans was dismissed. Dick Cheney, who was vice president of the U.S. when the war began, was president of Halliburton prior to becoming vice president.  

Brown has long advocated for veterans, including those afflicted with burn pits illnesses. He supported passage of the Dignified Burial and Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2012, which established the Burn Pit Registry for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals. The bill passed the Senate and the House in December 2012 and was signed into law in 2013.

Brown co-sponsored the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, which was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. They introduced the bill in 2016 and re-introduced it in 2017. It would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish a center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to open burn pits and other environmental exposures in Afghanistan or Iraq.

If it is approved, the bill also would help ensure that the center collaborates with the Department of Defense, institutions of higher education and other public and private entities to disseminate its findings and best practices when it comes the treatment of such conditions.

In December 2016, Brown helped pass a comprehensive veterans bill that included provisions from the Veterans First Act, which he co-sponsored. The law will help expand toxic exposure research for veterans and descendants.

Brown co-sponsored the Burn Pits Accountability Act alongside Sen. Klobuchar in 2018. It would ensure that any periodic health assessment provided to members of the Armed Forces includes an evaluation of whether the member has been based or stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used; or exposed to toxic airborne chemicals, including any information recorded as part of the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.

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How to contact the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Local activist Susan Zeier is urging people to contact the senators on the Veterans’ Affairs committee and urge them to allow veterans to speak at a hearing examining the damage done by burn pits in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Members of the committee:

Chairrman Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia (phone 202-224-3643); Sen. John Boozman, R-Arizona (202-224-4843); Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada (202-224-6244); Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana (202-224-5824); Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota (202-224-5842); Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina (202- 224-6342); Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska (202-224-3004); Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana (202-224-2644); Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington (202-224-2621); Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont (202-224-5141); Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio (202-224-2315); Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conneticutt (202-224-2823); Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii (202-224-6361); Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia (202-224-3954). 

You can write the committee at United States Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Russell Senate Building - Room 412, Washington, D.C., 20510-6050. 

Zeier urged anyone who wants to “thank a veteran” to call and request that veterans be given a hearing where they can testify in front of the committee. For information about what to say, or to learn more about the tens of thousands of veterans who are suffering from toxic exposure, write to Zeier at [email protected]

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