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Rep. Castro travels Texas promoting new burn pits bills

Servicemembers in the Gulf War and post-9/11 generation have been at risk for exposure to chemical and biological agents, oil-well fires, depleted uranium and smoke from burn pits like this one at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008.

MICHAEL GISICK/STARS AND STRIPES

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 22, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas — Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, is traveling his district this week hosting town hall meetings to discuss two House bills that he sponsored that aim to expand the tracking and evaluation of veterans and servicemembers who spent time living or working near burn pits while deployed overseas.

Hundreds of these open pits were used at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan – until banned by Congress in 2010 – to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris and released hazardous smoke into the air. Some troops exposed to smoke from burn pits have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to the toxic fumes.

The first bill, the Family Member Access to Burn Pits Registry Act of 2019, or H.R. 1001, would expand the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to allow family members of veterans to register their loved ones who might be too sick to do so or have died. The inability of family members to do this is “a gap in the law,” Castro told the people gathered Thursday evening at the Audie L. Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio.

Created in 2014, the registry is managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and is open to veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, veterans who served in Djibouti, Africa on or after Sept. 11, 2001, Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm veterans and others who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990.

The purpose of the registry is to collect voluntarily submitted information identifying a veteran’s health issues, said Rosie Torres, co-founder and executive director of Burn Pits 360, an organization that advocated for the federal registry.

“Although there’s not been research fully funded behind the registry, it’s still important that you register. That will eventually get us to where we need to be,” she said.

There are 164,775 veterans registered, she said. Texas has the highest number of participants with 18,888.

Because families can’t register a veteran, Torres said the registry is not fulfilling its purpose.

“Not having that (family) option to do so is not only disheartening, but if you’re not tracking mortality, how is anyone expected to conduct an effective epidemiological study?” Torres asked.

The second bill, the Burn Pits Veterans Revision Act of 2019, or H.R. 1005, would create a diagnostic code and evaluation criteria for obliterative bronchiolitis, a medical condition often linked to burn pits. The law would also create a disability rating for the illness.

“That would do great justice to our veterans suffering from exposure,” Castro said.

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Despite the political divides in Congress, Castro said he believes this issue has the ability to “transcend politics.”

Michael Doyle, a Houston lawyer with experience in burn pit cases, said Congress is the only route left for veterans. In January, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on a case against military contractor KBR, The Associated Press reported at the time. A previous ruling from a lower court concluded KBR was essentially under military control and had little discretion in deciding how to manage the waste.

“That’s why what Congress is doing so incredibly important,” Doyle said. “That door (to the courts) is shut, so to really deal with it, (legislation) is what needs to happen.”

Another gap in the registry is veterans can’t officially document a decline in health once they have registered, Torres said. So, for the second time, Burn Pits 360 is pushing for the Texas Legislature, Torres’ home state, to pass a law creating a statewide registry that allows for family members to register veterans and to add health updates to the registry. Bills have been filed in the Texas House and Senate.

They are asking Texas lawmakers to set “precedence and create a registry that would allow these things to take place,” Torres said. “It would put pressure on Congress at the federal level, but it would also allow us to start collecting data now instead of later.”

Their efforts failed in the previous state legislative session.

The fight is personal for Torres. She said her husband, retired Army Reserve Capt. Leroy Torres, has suffered from his own exposure to burn pits during 23 years in the Army. He was a plaintiff in the case brought before the Supreme Court.

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A recent scan of Torres’ brain showed trauma from toxic inhalation, his wife said. Brain damage from toxics appears on scans in the same way that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known commonly as CTE, appears on scans of football players who have experienced repeated concussions, Rosie Torres said.

“We faced this system of resistance and of delay and deny,” she said of their initial efforts to get help through the VA. “It was very traumatic for us.”

To close the San Antonio meeting, Castro, Rosie Torres, Doyle and Texas State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, who represents the city, took questions submitted in writing from people in attendance. Most questions focused on how to get involved in helping move the bills through the governments or the diagnosed ailments surrounding exposure to burn pits.

However, one person questioned what hope this generation of veterans has when it took decades to get the government to help Vietnam War veterans suffering from exposure to the pesticide Agent Orange.

“I don’t want it to take as long as it took for people who suffered from Agent Orange,” Castro said. “It shouldn’t take that long, but in order to hasten this and speed it up it takes public will. It takes a lot of pressure at the federal level and the state level.”

Castro will host two more town halls in Texas on Saturday in Corpus Christi and Edinburg.

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

 

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Dec. 1, 2015.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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