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Senator Bayh Calls for VA Coverage for Troops Exposed to Chemical Hazards

Testifies at Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on toxic exposure incident in Iraq

Washington  – Senator Evan Bayh made the following statement today at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing about S. 1779, The Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009:

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for the invitation to testify today—and for all you’re doing to ensure that the VA has the tools and authority it needs to help our brave men and women who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan nursing the wounds of war.

I am here today to testify about a tragedy that took place in 2003 on the outskirts of Basrah, Iraq.

I’m here on behalf of Lt. Colonel James Gentry and the brave men and women who served under his command in the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry of the Indiana National Guard.

I spoke with Lt. Col. Gentry by phone last week. He is at his home with his wife, Lou Ann, waging a valiant fight against terminal cancer.

The lieutenant colonel was a healthy man when he left for Iraq. Today, he is fighting for his life.

Tragically, many of his men are facing their own bleak prognoses as a result of their exposure to sodium dichromate—one of the most lethal carcinogens in existence.

The chemical is used as an anti-corrosive for pipes. It was strewn all over the water treatment facility guarded by the 152nd Infantry. More than 600 soldiers from Indiana, Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina were exposed.

One Indiana Guardsman has already died from lung disease. The Army has classified it a service-related death.  Dozens of others have come forward with a range of serious respiratory symptoms.

The DoD Inspector General just launched an investigation into the breakdowns and gaps in our system that allowed this tragic exposure to happen. Neither the Army nor the private contractor KBR performed an environmental risk assessment of the site, so our soldiers were breathing in this chemical and swallowing it for months.

Our country’s reliance on military contractors—and their responsibility to their bottom line vs. our soldiers’ safety—is a topic for another day and another hearing.

Mr. Chairman, today, I would like to tell this committee about S.1779. It is legislation I have written to ensure we provide full and timely medical care to soldiers exposed to hazardous chemicals during wartime military service.

The Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009 is bipartisan legislation that has been cosponsored by Senators Lugar, Dorgan, Rockefeller, Byrd, Wyden, and Merkley.

My bill is modeled after similar legislation that Congress approved in 1978 following the Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam conflict.

The bill ensured lifelong VA care for soldiers unwittingly exposed to the cancer-causing herbicide in the jungles of Vietnam.

Some have called toxic industrial hazards the Agent Orange of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.

My legislation would make soldiers eligible for medical examinations, laboratory tests, hospital care and nursing services. It would ensure soldiers receive priority health care at VA facilities. It would recognize a veteran’s own report of exposure and inclusion on a Department of Defense registry as sufficient proof to receive medical care, barring evidence to the contrary.

My legislation will help ensure that we provide the best possible care for American soldiers exposed to environmental hazards during the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. At a bare minimum, my bill will ensure compassionate care so families are spared the added grief of going from doctor to doctor in their loved ones’ final days, searching for a diagnosis.

The 1978 Agent Orange registry only covered one chemical compound. But my bill is broader. It covers all members of the armed forces who have been exposed to any environmental chemical hazard, not just sodium dichromate. It recognizes a new set of risks that soldiers face today throughout the world.

Senate testimony last year identified at least seven serious instances of potential contamination involving different industrial hazards—sulfur fires, ionizing radiation, sarin gas, and depleted uranium, to name a few.

S.1779 ensures that veterans who were exposed to these chemicals will be eligible for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care.

It allows the Secretary of Defense to identify the hazards of greatest concern that warrant special attention from the VA.

My bill switches the burden of proof from the soldier to the government. Soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals will receive care presumptively, unless the VA can show their illness is not related to their service.

Exposure to toxic chemicals is a threat no service member should have to face. It is our moral obligation to offer access to prompt, quality care. We should cut the red tape for these heroes.

Mr. Chairman, I promised Lt. Col. Gentry that I would fight for his men here in Congress. I promise I would use my position to get them the care they deserve and to make sure we protect our soldiers from preventable risks like this in the future.

This tragedy will be compounded if we do not take the steps to provide the best medical care this country has to offer.

Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony today. I urge this committee to adopt S. 1779 to honor the sacrifice of Lt. Colonel Gentry and all of our brave men and women doing the hard, dangerous work of keeping America safe.


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Posted by on Oct 22 2009. Filed under Congressional Hearings, Senate DPC Hearing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment for “Senator Bayh Calls for VA Coverage for Troops Exposed to Chemical Hazards”

  1. Come on congressmen, stop dragging your feet. This and “S.1963 – Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009”, Let’s get to work. If either of these bills don’t pass, see you at the voting booth.

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