In this April 28, 2011 photo, an Afghan National Army pickup truck passes parked U.S. armored military vehicles, as smoke rises from a fire in a trash burn pit at Forward Operating Base Caferetta Nawzad, Helmand province south of Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. Marines recently pacified this once violent town center, but there isn't much left of it. Nawzad's center is quiet, but its desert outskirts are still contested. The southwest province of Helmand, where Nawzad sits, is where the Afghan war is being fought hardest. The majority Pashtun province remains a vital base of operations for the insurgency. (AP Photo/Simon Klingert)
Brett Sholtis is WITF’s Transforming Health reporter, covering health policy and community health issues that affect Pennsylvanians. Brett strives to share personal stories that have a tie to broad issues and emerging trends. He seeks to give voice to diverse viewpoints, including those of people living with mental illness, disability and those living in poverty. He plays a key role in WITF’s mental health series, Through the Cracks, which reports on problem areas in mental health services and efforts to reduce stigma around those living with behavioral disorders. Previously, Brett was a business reporter at the York Daily Record, where his work included award-winning examinations of the nuclear power industry and food safety. He is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard veteran.
(Washington) — A major veterans advocacy organization says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should be doing more to help vets who were exposed to toxic chemicals in combat zones, particularly pollution from burn pits.
During the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military contractors routinely burned garbage that included heavy metals, chemicals, human waste and plastic. As early as 2008, soldiers reported illnesses they said was due to being exposed to fumes from the burn pits.
DAV Executive Director Randy Reese pointed to a Vanderbilt Medical Center study of 101st Airborne Soldiers who became ill after a deployment.
“And they did some biopsies on their lungs, and what they found out was, the issues have to do with toxins in their lungs from those burn pits while they were deployed,” he said.
Reese says the DAV supports federal legislation to have a condition called obliterative bronchitis classified as a service related disability.
The Veterans Affairs administration has said there’s no evidence burn pits pose long-term health problems, though the agency says it continues to study the health of veterans who were exposed.
The DAV also wants to help family members who take care of an aging or ill veteran. For every seriously disabled veteran, there may be a family member who quit working to take care of that veteran full time, Reese said.
Caregivers for veterans injured in conflicts after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks get benefits such as training, health insurance and a small stipend. But caregivers for veterans injured prior to 9/11 don’t get the same benefits.
“And we know that staying home taking care of veterans they have better health outcomes, and it saves taxpayers $50 billion a year, and yet we cannot get these people taken care of,” Reese said.
Veterans’ groups want to change that. He noted that 30 percent of Pennsylvania’s 800,000 veterans have a disability, including tens of thousands of Vietnam-era veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it wants to expand its caregiver program for veterans injured prior to 9/11. However, in October, blaming technology infrastructure, the VA announced further delays to that update.