North Texas is expecting a major visitor on Tuesday. President Joe Biden will be in Fort Worth to meet with veterans.
His plan is to tackle the health effects of toxic exposures, such as burning fireplaces that were common practice in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made that clear in last week’s State of the Union when he called on Congress to pass new legislation to ensure more veterans get the medical benefits they deserve.
He even mentioned a potential link to his own son Beau Biden’s deadly brain cancer.
“When they returned home, many of the fittest and best-trained warriors in the world weren’t the same during the State of the Union.
Two days after the president’s speech, Congress passed the new bill on Thursday by a vote of 256 to 174, with 34 Republicans joining all House Democrats in voting for him – but he still has to clear the Senate .
The new legislation aims to strengthen health care services and disability benefits for veterans exposed to these toxic combustion sources, which veterans say is a topic little known to the general American public, but which has been a hot topic for decades.
The Department of Defense estimates that around 3.5 million service members could have been exposed to burning fireplaces, a common practice, especially during wars in the Middle East.
Veterans like Flower Mound’s Randy Guidry told NBC 5 it’s the kind of support he’s been waiting for for more than 15 years.
A native of Louisiana, Guidry served in the National Guard for a decade through most of the 1990s. In 2003, he was deployed to Afghanistan to help build military bases.
Meanwhile, the growing population burned trash there like tires, batteries, vehicles, electronics and medical waste – a common practice for the military during these operations.
“The first two times I was around, I was saying to some of my soldiers, ‘This can’t be good.’ You know? When we were there, we never had masks, we never had any kind of protection there,” he said. “They were constantly burning while we were there.”
Jet fuel was even used to start the fires, according to service members. Guidry said his sleeping tent was only half a mile from the burning site, with winds often blowing thick black smoke in his direction.
He said just smelling the fuel at certain times in his daily life brought back difficult memories.
“To this day, whenever I smell those fumes, that’s pretty much the first thing it does – it brings me right back there, because it reminds me of burning fireplaces,” Guidry said.
Guidry said that before Afghanistan he was in good health but since then he has suffered from major respiratory problems and chronic migraines.
Now, like so many other veterans, he worries about cancer.
“I have to use an inhaler daily and if I don’t use it I constantly feel like I’m out of breath. I have a rescue inhaler which I had to use occasionally in addition to my daily inhaler,” he said. “It’s gotten worse over the years and it’s getting worse now.”
Guidry said he tried to apply for health care services and support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but like so many other veterans in his situation, he was turned down because the VA does not recognize any link between burning fireplaces and health problems despite ample evidence. with doctors. There is also a long and difficult process to prove the link with the claims managers.
“I believe our taxpayers would be appalled if they understood how much time, effort and money it takes to deny veterans’ claims. The saying among vets is that the motto of the Veterans Administration is, “Deny, deny and hope they die,” said Grace Weatherly, a civil attorney who represented Guidry in a benefit claim stemming from the burn exposure. pits.
“More than 20 years have passed since the attacks of September 11 and the resulting rush of volunteers to serve our country. These veterans were healthy and credible when the government decided they were good enough to defend our American interests in the Middle East, why are they presumed to be liars and crooks when they return home to seek medical care and disability benefits? she added.
Guidry said he had to pay for his treatments and medication out of his own pocket.
“Some people unfortunately probably have to make the decision not to pay rent, or not to pay for drugs or medical bills. Or don’t pay for the food,” he said.
His lawyer said that while the new legislation offers a permanent solution for veterans exposed to burning fireplaces, the problem is even bigger.
“What’s not discussed is that the regulations governing these claims, which are passed by the Department of Defense, can be changed without a vote of Congress,” Weatherly explained. “The definition of ‘Southwest Asia’ currently excludes Afghanistan, so veterans who have been deployed to Afghanistan do not have the protection of ‘presumed connection to service’ for symptoms that do not have no clear cause, such as those experienced by many people exposed to fireplaces.
She said those deployed to Iraq and other countries in the region have used this presumption of service connection for otherwise unexplained physical conditions and symptoms often referred to as “Gulf War syndrome.”
“Gulf War Syndrome was originally thought to be caused largely by exposure to airborne particles such as dust and sand. Our Gulf War veterans were not armored with masks or PPE of any kind despite the obviously poor air quality caused by dust and sand storms,” Weatherly said. “Now it has become apparent that in addition to dust and sand, our Gulf War veterans were breathing in the toxic fumes from the burning fires.”
Weatherly said that because the toxins have been identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as being associated with a long list of medical conditions, including cancer, there is a chance that immediate action could be taken sooner than the new bill cannot be passed.
“The exclusion of veterans deployed to Afghanistan could still be corrected tomorrow, if Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, orders the Department to do so,” she said.
NEW EFFORTS OFFER HOPE
Yet the efforts in Washington are a beacon of hope for veterans.
In November, the White House announced that soldiers exposed to combustion fireplaces who have developed one of three specific illnesses – asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis – within 10 years can receive disability benefits.
The recently passed House bill builds on that effort with nearly two dozen presumptive conditions, and perhaps more to come in the years to come.
If the new bill passes the Senate and becomes law, it would increase spending by more than $300 billion over the next decade.
This would open up Department of Veterans Affairs health care to those millions of people who are exposed to burning fireplaces, even if they don’t have a service-connected disability.
The bill would also provide new or increased disability benefits to thousands of veterans with cancer or respiratory conditions like bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. The VA would assume that the veterans developed their disease as a result of exposure to toxic substances while on duty.
The bill also provides retroactive benefits to veterans whose disability claims have been denied and to survivors of deceased veterans.
“There are a lot of veterans who suffer from the same kinds of things as me and don’t even know why,” Guidry said. “It took me almost eight, nine years and I still don’t have a final resolution on mine. Hopefully with this new legislation that will change. But you know, if you’re having these issues, go get it looked at. File all these claims so you can get the help you deserve.”
According to NBC News, this aid goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. It also adds hypertension to the list of illnesses that Vietnam veterans are believed to have developed due to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.
Opponents of the bill say the influx of cases could overburden an already stressed VA system, which could lead to longer wait times for health care and claims processing.
But supporters say it’s a clear sign from Congress that veterans exposed to toxic substances are suffering, something President Biden is expected to discuss in detail in Fort Worth on Tuesday.