Tipton column: Preventing the Agent Orange crisis for post-9/11 generation
After the tragic events that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, many brave Americans joined the Armed Forces and served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. During their time in the Middle East, they encountered many dangers, and unfortunately for some of these heroes, one specific threat followed them home.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, it was standard practice for soldiers on the ground to use burn pits as a way to dispose of waste. These pits were located on military bases, because locating them outside of secured areas in hostile territory could put those in charge of waste disposal in danger. Unfortunately, when burned, much of the waste emitted toxic fumes, which would then spread throughout the camp.
There are now over 140,000 service members and veterans who have reported exposure to burn pits, and those are just the ones we know about.
This burn pit crisis is now referred to as the Agent Orange of the post 9/11 generation. The reason for this comparison is because much like exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used during the Vietnam War, there are serious health complications that can arise from exposure to burn pit toxins. These complications range from neurological disorders to lung diseases and rare forms of cancer.
As we now know, many Vietnam War veterans who became sick from Agent Orange exposure during their service had to wait a very long time to receive the treatment and benefits that were owed to them. Many veterans did not receive the care they so desperately needed because it took years for the federal government to mandate that diseases associated with Agent Orange would be treated as the result of wartime service, and others still have still not received the care they need because they did not serve “boots on the ground” in Vietnam but rather served in the territorial waters of Vietnam or in Thailand. This is a problem I am also working to fix through legislation.
What happened to the Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange was completely wrong, and I do not want a similar situation to occur with the service members and veterans who have been exposed to burn pits. In order to prevent even more Americans from languishing in a lengthy bureaucratic process while their conditions go untreated, I cosponsored the Burn Pits Accountability Act (H.R. 5671).
This critical legislation would take the first important step in getting the exposed service members the care they need. It would do so by requiring the Secretary of Defense to record whether a service member had been stationed at a location where an open burn pit was used and include this information in Periodic Health Assessments (PHAs), Separation History and Physical Examinations (SHPEs), and Post-Deployment Health Assessment (PDHAs). If a service member was exposed to a burn pit, this legislation would ensure that they be enrolled in the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry (unless they chose to opt out), with the intent to study and collect data on their exposure.
Once we study and begin to understand the issue as a whole, we can begin to efficiently give every soldier and veteran who has been affected by burn pits the care they need and deserve, without making them jump through unnecessary hoops. The burn pit crisis is becoming very prevalent, and my staff has heard from multiple veterans from Colorado’s 3rd District who lived by burn pits for months at a time during their deployment, with some experiencing terrible symptoms at a very young age.
Our nation did not help those affected by Agent Orange quickly enough, and I will not allow the same mistake to happen again. I will continue to work to ensure that these veterans, and all of Colorado’s veterans, have access to the care they deserve. If you or someone you know is having issues receiving their benefits, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or a member of my staff. We can be reached in Pueblo at 719-542-1073.
Congressman Scott R. Tipton represents Colorado’s 3rd District. He serves on the House Committees on Financial Services and Natural Resources, and is executive vice chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus.