Our military fights against this generation’s Agent Orange

Burn pits release at least 51 toxins into the atmosphere in military theaters — and into the lungs, eyes, and skin of our armed-forces personnel

PUTNEY — We have done a couple of pretty amazing things in the Senate in recent days. One was passing an amendment to the state constitution that would protect reproductive rights. I am not going to write about that one right now.

But we passed another bill - one that concerns the burn pits used by the military at their camps in various theaters. Many people are not aware of this issue.

Neither was I, until Sheriff Keith Clark brought it to my attention.

Some of the pits can be as large as three football fields. What goes into them? Anything the military needs to get rid of: disabled vehicles, tires, human waste, animals, body parts, ammunition, building materials. (In fact, one report said that the stream could not be completely identified.)

All these items are thrown in, doused with accelerant, and burned. On one base alone, an estimated 100 to 200 tons per day were burned.

The releases from these burn pits are very toxic. The Institute of Medicine identified 51 toxins and said there were many more.

These toxins are in the air the soldiers breathe and in the sand that puffs up with every step and wind storm. They get into their lungs, their eyes, their skin. In fact, these toxins become part of them. General David Petraeus warned the military of the danger these burn pits posed to soldiers 10 years ago, yet they continue to be used.

Burn pits are associated (but not officially) with diseases of the kidneys, liver, reproduction, respiratory, and many different forms of cancer.

This issue is this generation's Agent Orange. With Agent Orange, it took many years and many deaths before much was done. In fact, we are still adding presumptive diseases to the list connected to the defoliant chemical.

We cannot let that happen again.

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So the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which I chair, has tried to do what we as a state can do. And the entire Senate agreed with our approach on April 5 in a 30-0 vote.

We took testimony from a 33-year-old veteran who has fewer than two years to live, from widows, mothers, veterans, our federal delegation, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Guard, the Vermont Medical Society, and the Department of Health.

We heard from Vietnam veterans dying from Agent Orange who asked us not to let this happen again, and from doctors who worked with veterans.

Some of the most compelling and emotional testimony came from June Heston, whose husband, Brigadier General Michael Heston, died in December, and from Wesley Black, who is 33 years old and has fewer than two years to live.

Mr. Black said it is too late for him and that it is unconscionable the way we treat veterans. If his efforts can help others, he said, he will spend his remaining time fighting for them.

Ms. Heston asked us to make sure she was the last widow to suffer because of what we are not doing for our veterans.

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The VA has created a Burn Pit Registry that will be used for research purposes by the Institute of Medicine. The more people we can get registered quickly, the faster the IOM will be able to create a list of diseases that are presumed to be associated with service in the five theaters that use the pits.

The registry means that veterans can get treatment - and, hopefully, benefits - sooner.

The bill we passed is, admittedly, not as much as we would like to do. We acknowledge that we have no control over the Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs.

But we can and must do what we can for our neighbors who are suffering.

So we have required the Department of Health to work with the National Guard to create a letter and pamphlet that will be sent to all Vermont medical providers identifying the symptoms and offering information on how to register.

The DOH will also create a communique that will be sent to all those in Vermont who may be eligible. We have no control over the VA but have asked them to do a number of things to make the registration process simpler and more convenient and to allow family members of deceased veterans the ability to register.

Each of the entities we worked with is willingly taking this on.

We are a small state, but this effort is already making a difference. Veterans and legislators from around the country are asking for our help in their own efforts, and we have already seen a 10-percent increase in the registrations in Vermont.

So just one person asking us to do something may lead to a groundswell of response - and perhaps will have influence on changing our policies and treating our veterans better.

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