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Toxic-exposure conference Friday to bring big names to call for VA reform

Senior Airman Frances Gavalis, an equipment manager with the 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, tosses unserviceable uniform items into a burn pit in Iraq in 2008.

U.S. AIR FORCE

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 26, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — A former Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, policy and medical experts, and a famous comedian are joining forces Friday night to discuss toxic exposure among veterans and reforms necessary to get those veterans treatment, care and disability resources.

Hosted by the nonprofit organization Burn Pits 360, the Military Toxic Exposure Conference will be broadcast free through the Facebook page of veteran-owned clothing company Grunt Style in an effort to reach the 3.5 million veterans believed to have been exposed to airborne toxins overseas as well as the VA personnel who serve those veterans and the American public.

“I think the basic issue is that we keep on making the same mistakes,” said former VA Secretary David Shulkin, a scheduled speaker during the conference. “We send people into conflict situations, put them at risk and then they get back home and we put them through an adversarial process where it can take years, if not decades, to be able to get the type of support that our veterans deserve.”

Shulkin served as secretary from February 2017 through March 2018 and he said he spent much of that time dealing with the challenges faced by Vietnam War veterans who seek care for exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange. That cycle should end now, he said.

“I do think that there’s certainly a need and a role for generalized recognition of the issues and education about the facts. I also believe that we have to fight a sense of powerlessness that nothing can be done,” Shulkin said.

He is scheduled to speak Friday alongside toxic-exposure-claims expert Kerry Baker, pulmonologist Dr. Robert Miller, and Dr. Anthony Szema, a pulmonologist who is also an allergy and immunology specialist. Both doctors have conducted research on the effects of toxic exposure among veterans.

Also scheduled to participate in the conference are two men well-known for a similar battle to get government help for first responders who worked at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: John Feal, a 9/11 first-responder who founded the Feal Good Foundation, and comedian Jon Stewart, who advocated on behalf of those first responders.

Rosie Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360, an organization dedicated to advocating for veterans exposed to airborne toxins, said she began working with Stewart and Feal to use their model to gain traction for veterans after seeing the passage of a bill last year to provide health monitoring and financial aid to the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. Many of the toxins found at the World Trade Center site are the same as those found in the fumes from the burn pits used during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, she said. Those toxins can cause chronic respiratory conditions, cancers and other long-term health problems.

More than 250 burn pits were used by the Defense Department at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, Shulkin said. The pits burned trash day and night, with the toxic fumes wafting across the base for service members to breathe — a concoction of chemicals including dioxins, furans, lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

“The event is really to inform. Inform the public, the veteran community and America that this is an issue,” said Torres, whose involvement on the subject began after her husband, former Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, experienced health problem from burn pit exposure in Iraq. He then faced years of delayed care and denial of benefits at the VA.

Rosie Torres’ goal is to have Congress pass legislation that would grant the VA the ability to presume that veterans who spent time around burn pits were exposed to toxic fumes, which could help with disability claims. Stewart is expected to discuss the potential legislation during the conference.

It mirrors the presumption that veterans who served in Vietnam were exposed to herbicidal agents, said Baker, who previously worked as section chief of the legislative and policy staff in the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Compensation Department. The presumption means Vietnam veterans filing claims related to exposure don’t have to prove the exposure occurred. It is legally presumed to have happened, and if a veteran suffers from any disease known to be related to that exposure, they are compensated dependent on the severity of their condition.

Without it, veterans must prove what led to their exposure along with a diagnosis and a medical link between the two. The VA reportedly has denied 80% of claims related to burn pits, Shulkin said.

Baker said he helped draft a training letter in 2010 for VA examiners and raters to use to better assess burn pit claims from post-9/11 veterans. But he said he can see by the way denial letters are written that the training document hasn’t been put to use in the appropriate way. The VA has not taken any action since then to provide training for those personnel.

“That’s who I would hope would listen [Friday] and I hope that they would understand that this is not just a bunch of brick-throwing at the VA,” said Baker, an attorney who now works solely with disabled veterans. “I want them to know what VA is not doing that their own policy says it should be doing.”

He said he agrees legislation for presumptive exposure would fill in the gaps in the claims process and would provide better for veterans. Shulkin also said the legislation is important. It meets one of the seven changes that the VA needs to make to improve the system for veterans suffering from toxic exposure.

However, Shulkin said he believes it is within the VA’s mission to make such changes without legislation — something his successor, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said is necessary.

“The key objective is to get the veterans the help that they need,” Shulkin said. “The VA is either unwilling or feels they cannot do it without legislation; then clearly, legislation is the next step and should be done. I am supportive of that.”

Next month in Washington, Stewart is expected to help introduce the new bill on presumption of exposure, Torres said. The bill is still in the final stages of being drafted.

“Jon Stewart is specifically in the call to action,” she said. “He’s lending his voice to say, ‘We need to sound the alarm.’”

Grunt Style will host the conference on its Facebook page beginning at 6 p.m. CST. For more information, go to https://www.facebook.com/gruntstyle/.

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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