In their words: Kansas military veterans share passion for federal burn-pit legislation

U.S. Senate-passed bill compels VA health care for millions exposed to toxins

By: - June 26, 2022 1:35 pm
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, led development of a comprehensive bill providing VA health benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, Agent Orange and other health hazards. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran's news conference)

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, led development of a comprehensive bill providing VA health benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, Agent Orange and other health hazards. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s news conference)

TOPEKA — Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mike Dodson concentrated on immediate hazards presented by the enemy during two tours in Vietnam, service during Operation Desert Storm and leading the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley.

Appreciation for profound risks of exposure to dioxin-infused defoliant Agent Orange in Southeast Asia as well as possible chemical hazards in the Middle East evolved over time. Health dangers of pollution at overseas U.S. military installations where all types of toxic waste was incinerated had been suspected, he said, but the smoke was difficult to avoid and could travel for miles.

If legislation passed by the U.S. Senate is embraced by the U.S. House and signed by President Joe Biden, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will implement a law covering veterans grappling with medical problems associated with burn pits. The Senate’s bill is similar to a measure passed in March by the House and endorsed by Biden.

“Servicemen and women have suffered various ailments and have long sought to have these hazards recognized by the VA as being causal factors,” said Dodson, a Republican representing Manhattan in the Kansas House. “This legislation will give hope to those veterans who are searching for answers to their suffering. It will also fulfill our commitment to them for the sacrifices they have made in the service of our country.”

The Senate bill — Honoring Our PACT Act, named in honor of the late Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson — represents years of advocacy by health care and veterans organizations. It’s been championed by U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and would deliver health care and benefits to toxin-exposed veterans of all eras.

Under the bill, 23 burn-pit-related conditions would be added to the VA’s list of ailments presumed to be connected to military service. No longer would veterans have to prove their conditions aligned with toxic exposure were linked to their deployments.

The bill would expand recognition of Agent Orange exposure for veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll. It also would strengthen federal research on toxic exposures.

The VA also would offer new health care and disability benefits to post-Sept. 11 combat veterans, which could include 3.5 million men and women.

Moran, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, described the bill as the “most comprehensive toxic exposure package the Senate has ever delivered to veterans.” He said the 10-year, $278 billion estimated cost was justified because the cost of military conflict wasn’t fully paid with declaration of a war’s end.

‘Overlooked, ignored’

John Buckley, a retired U.S. Army colonel living in Andover, said he unequivocally supported the congressional legislation. During 33 years of military service, he ordered troops into harm’s way. He said he attempted to mitigate risks, but expected them to perform dangerous tasks in training and combat.

“Reinforcing my actions was my firm belief that we would take care of them, or their family, if they suffered an injury or fatality during any of these missions,” Buckley said. “My soldiers, our nation’s treasure, followed my difficult orders and directions because they trusted me, and they trusted that their nation would take care of them or their families if our mission went awry.”

He said the nation responded to military personnel who suffered combat wounds or were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but injuries tied to prolonged exposure to burn pits, toxic fumes and other environmental hazards were frequently overlooked or ignored.

“Our country has turned their back on these heroes,” the colonel said. “These overlooked men and women are clearly suffering from the toll of armed conflict.”

Arthur DeGroat, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and member of the Kansas Governor’s Military Council, said he personally observed results of burn pits and toxic exposure on soldiers.

He said primitive use of fire to burn all sorts of waste had to be stopped, because it put in jeopardy troops, civilians, residents of other countries and the overall environment. The Senate bill would care for veterans and improve the nature of combat deployments, he said.

“Moreover, advances in military logistics will now have the impetus to innovate to reduce the waste footprint of harmful byproducts of wartime materials,” DeGroat said.

‘Took too long’

Eric Owens, adjutant for Disabled American Veterans in Kansas, said the federal bill would benefit thousands of Kansas veterans exposed to Agent Orange, radiation, contaminated water, burn pits and other hazards.

“Many of our members are suffering from illnesses caused by these exposures and in many cases they do not have access to VA health care and benefits,” he said.

Newton resident Timothy Marlar, who retired as a colonel from the Kansas Army National Guard after 36 years of service, said the federal government couldn’t miss this opportunity to recognize hazards faced by military personnel. He said the nation should learn from mistakes of the past: “It took too long for the VA provide relief for those exposed to Agent Orange.”

“As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I know so many of my fellow veterans who are suffering from the negative effects of toxic exposure during their service in-theater,” said Pat Proctor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and current GOP state representative from Leavenworth. “And, there is no telling how many of us will be impacted as we get older.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.