Benishek backs research on toxic exposure for military

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A new bill in Congress would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to research the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions affecting children and grandchildren of veterans exposed to toxic contaminants during their military service.

The Toxic Exposure Research Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, would also authorize the Department of Defense to declassify certain instances of exposure to members of the military.

“We’re here today to find the answers that our military families deserve,” Benishek said at a Tuesday news conference. “As a doctor who served at the Iron Mountain VA and as a parent and a grandparent, I’m astounded by the fact that we don’t understand generational effects of toxics exposure.”

The bill wouldn’t only address the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and pesticides the United States used in the Vietnam War but also nerve agents from the Gulf War, as well as chemical weapons and burn pits across Iraq and Afghanistan, among others.

Veterans advocates are concerned that symptoms tied to exposure to toxic substances are misdiagnosed in the children and grandchildren of veterans. “The point is we don’t know” what kind of long-term or generational effects such exposure has on veterans and their descendants, Benishek said.

“We will not allow current generations to wait decades, like happened with Agent Orange, until we find out what’s going on,” he said.

The legislation has bipartisan backing with Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., co-sponsoring the House bill, and Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introducing its counterpart in the Senate.

The bill would create a national center within the VA health care system specifically devoted to medical research on toxics exposure. The legislation does not specify a location for the center.

John P. Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, called the bill the “most important” piece of legislation for veterans since the Agent Orange Act of 1991. That law led to veterans who served in Vietnam and Korea generally qualifying for disability benefits under what is referred to as “presumed exposure.”

“We raised our right hands and we swore to uphold the Constitution for our country,” Rowan said at the news conference. “But our kids didn’t raise their right hand, and our grandkids didn’t raise their right hand, and who knows how far along this is going to go. And that’s the real problem. We need to know. Just think how long we’ve been waiting.”

In an interview, Rowan highlighted the example of Air Force reservists exposed to Agent Orange in C-123 planes that sprayed the defoliant during the Vietnam War, and have been fighting for compensation for illnesses they say were caused by the exposure.

“The VA is still the VA, and they’ve been fighting everything for years,” Rowan said.

Exposure to toxins doesn’t only occur overseas. Representatives of veterans organizations noted the case of millions of Marines who spent time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina over decades when the drinking water was tainted with carcinogens from hazardous-waste dumping at the military base. A number of Marines were diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses that they believe stemmed from the pollution at Camp Lejeune.

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