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The VA Expected Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Lead to Toxic Exposure

VA agency officials recently told McClatchy that their disease researchers began discussing war-related illnesses internally soon after the 9/11 attacks. The revelation has caused much anger from veterans and advocacy groups that have been denied medical claims for decades with the VA claiming that there was not sufficient evidence to link veterans’ in service with their ailments.

Victoria Davey, an epidemiologist and associate chief research officer at the VA, said that there were lots of conversations about “we don’t know what to expect, but we expect there to be consequences.” It is apparent that the VA was trying to be proactive after failing to adequately address toxic-exposure illnesses in previous conflicts. According to Davey, there was a general sentiment that they did not want “another Vietnam.”

The VA’s focus on the matter went further than preliminary internal discussions with the tracking of service members in Afghanistan and eventually Iraq, after 9/11. Davey discussed what they called the “Iraqi Lung” as being one of the first things they saw in the early years of the wars. These were respiratory problems caused by the air conditions in Iraq. “It’s complicated because it’s a sandstorm environment and in addition there’s just a lot of smoke, dust, solvent exposure in the military occupation of many kinds, and then we had these chemical, biological weapons worries going on,” said Davey.

Understandably, some veterans who have spent years trying to convince the VA that their illnesses are linked to their time in service are deeply angry. Many of them have spent up to two decades being told that there was no connection between their illness and service. As a result, they have not received any compensation or medical care.

Army Captain Le Roy Torres, who now relies on supplemental oxygen to breathe, said that “This is an insult to know that the VA started planning for toxic exposure shortly after the planes hit the Twin Towers.” He was exposed to a football field-sized open air trash burning pit on his base in Balad, Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Torres voiced his frustrations about the many conversations with the VA that have ended with them citing a lack of science.

Yet, advocates are hopeful that this may be “the year of toxic exposure.” Senator Richard Blumenthal told McClatchy that he thinks “we’ve reached a sort of critical mass of understanding and perhaps political support, a feeling that we have a moral imperative as well as a political reckoning here.” His sentiment is shared by a number of advocates that recognize a new president that seems to understand the importance of the situation, as well as an influx of support from big names like comedian Jon Stewart.

Blumenthal and a number of other lawmakers have introduced new legislation to improve care for ill veterans who had toxic exposure overseas. Perhaps he is right, and this will be the year of remedying the issue of toxic exposure to veterans.

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