Rep. Roger Williams talks about veterans' health and open burn pit exposure
Open burn pits have been used to destroy everything from trash to human waste and batteries in Southwest Asia since U.S. troops first arrived in the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Since then, millions of service members deployed to areas such as Kuwait, Djibouti, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have been exposed to the toxic smoke coming from these burn pits.
And many veterans who served in those countries have been coming down with strange illnesses, such as rare cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis they believe are related to exposure to open burn pits and other airborne hazards such as smoke from oil fires and sandstorms. But they are having difficulty getting treatment and disability pay for those illnesses because scientists say research that could prove the link between airborne toxin exposure and their diseases will take years. Hampering that research is that the Department of Defense did not keep records of materials burned, nor did they perform thorough air quality studies, according to findings at a congressional hearing June 7 in Washington, D.C.
And until research is complete, many of those sick veterans are paying hefty medical bills out of pocket. Others are dying from cancers while in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.
In the three counties surrounding Fort Hood, nearly 60,000 veterans could have been exposed to the health-altering chemicals contained in smoke from those burn pits during deployments to Southwest Asia, according to the Texas Veterans Commission. That does not include the thousands of active-duty troops currently stationed at Fort Hood who have been exposed.
The Department of Veterans Affairs was mandated by Congress to create the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in order to provide a long-term research program to potentially link illnesses with exposure. The registry became available in 2014. There were 4,500 veterans within a 50-mile radius of the Temple VA Medical Center signed up for it as of last May. The Herald reached out to the candidates running for U.S. Congressional seats this year to find out what plans they have to address the issues these veterans are facing.
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin
The current incumbent for U.S. House District 25 said he isn’t sure Congress should require the VA to give a veteran the presumption that their illness is related to exposure to open burn pits while deployed.
“The VA must conduct their due diligence in determining whether a certain illness is service-connected and related to burn pit exposure, which Congress has taken steps to empower the administration to do so,” Williams said. “To make a presumption without complete evidence would not be in the best interest of veterans.”
Williams said he does believe the VA needs to work at completing the necessary research to make the connection between exposure and illnesses, however.
“I would urge the VA to thoroughly, and as expeditiously as possible, complete their research and analysis relating to the service connection of illnesses due to burn pit exposure. New legislation may not be necessary at this time, but I would entertain (VA) Secretary (Robert) Wilkie’s requests for additional funding and resources, as he sees fit, to complete this.”
Williams said the recently-passed Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act will provide funding and resources for the VA to research the possible negative health impacts of exposure to burn pits and that the Department of Defense and the VA should both be openly transparent with any information that may be helpful in the research.
“I encourage the VA to use any information available to them, whether that is from the (Center for Disease Control), (World Health Organization) or otherwise to make the best determination of what service-connected illnesses are related to burn pits,” he said. “Congress and the VA have taken a good step forward in addressing potential burn pit exposure illnesses. However, there is always more that we can do and I am committed to seeing this issue through.”
The Congressman added that he is confident the VA is in capable hands under Wilkie and that giving Congress the authority to determine presumption of a service-connected injury would be a disservice to veterans and “further complicate an already overly-bureaucratic system.”
“Veterans need more access, choice and control over their healthcare,” he said. “Less bureaucrats and more medical professionals is necessary within the Veterans Health Administration. Recent legislation signed into law, such as the VA Mission Act, mandates effective change within the agency. In Congress, I will continue to work hard to make our veterans a top priority by ensuring the Department has the budget to serve the needs of veterans and that the care they receive is of the highest quality.”