Saturday, April 11, 2009

Senators propose registry for poisoned Iraq veterans

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Senators propose registry for poisoned Iraq veterans

by Jullie Sullivan
The Oregonian

Three U.S. senators want Oregon Army National Guard soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq to be tracked and receive lifetime medical care for problems that result.

They introduced a bill Thursday to create a registry that would speed exams and treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation also authorizes a scientific review of evidence linking chemical exposure to health problems, much like the Agent Orange registry that was created for Vietnam veterans.

The proposal would affect at least 292 Oregon soldiers who served in Iraq in 2003, as well as hundreds from Indiana, South Carolina and West Virginia. The troops, including the first Oregonians into Iraq, may have been exposed to cancer-causing hexavalent chromium.

The bill would apply to other -- even future -- hazards.

"We have 3,000 Guard members about to deploy in May, and I want to make sure they're protected," said co-sponsor Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. "They face enough risk, and they shouldn't have to battle their own government if they need treatment when they come home."

The bill would ease access to care that soldiers are already entitled to as veterans. But instead of veterans having to prove that certain medical conditions may be related to chemical exposure, the government would presume that connection, said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana.

"We are shifting the burden of proof," Bayh said.

Since January, more than two dozen Oregon veterans have asked to be placed on a registry and more than a dozen have reported health issues, mostly breathing problems. The troops were with the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry Division that served at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant from April 2003 to June 2003. They were protecting civilian contractors from the Haliburton subsidiary KBR, which was restoring Iraqi oil production.

Bags of a corrosion fighter that contained hexavalent chromium had been spilled and piled, sometimes feet deep, at the plant. Soldiers may have been exposed while patrolling at the water plant, and they may have exposed other soldiers who shared their dusty living quarters or vehicles. Inhaling an amount as small as a grain of salt of hexavalent chromium can greatly increase the risk of cancer.

But nearly six years after their tour, some Oregon soldiers still may not know of the potential danger. A Guard spokesman said Thursday that 43 registered letters sent to 292 Oregon soldiers have been returned unopened.

Also Thursday, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., introduced his own bill requiring the Department of Defense to notify soldiers in writing if they have been exposed to contaminants.

"When we send American soldiers overseas, we have a responsibility to protect their health and safety," Schrader said in a statement. "Our responsibility does not end when they leave the combat zone -- our responsibility to them and their families is a lifelong commitment."

Schrader has joined with Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., to introduce the U.S. House version of the Senate's registry bill.

Schrader has personally reached out to Larry Roberta of Aumsville whose story of being 100 percent disabled with lung and other problems since serving at the Iraqi water treatment plan was featured in The Oregonian on March 7.

"If it helps someone not have to go through the heartache we did, that would be nice," said Roberta's wife, Michelle.

Concerns about chemical exposures in Iraq had passed virtually unnoticed until last year when Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, held 18 hearings into waste, abuse and fraud. At one hearing in June, former civilian employees of Kellogg, Brown & Root, testified that their managers disregarded their concerns about hexavalent chromium. By the employees' own survey, 60 percent of those at the water plant were having health problems, including difficulty breathing and bloody noses. They included British and U.S. soldiers.

KBR whistleblowers had sued the company, a case now in arbitration, according to Houston attorney Mike Doyle. In September, Sens. Bayh, Dorgan, Wyden, Robert Byrd, D-W.V., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., proposed an amendment to last year's National Defense Authorization Act to create a registry. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then senators, were co-sponsors.

In December, 16 Indiana soldiers sued KBR. But it wasn't until Bayh mentioned the Oregon soldiers in a television program that the commanders of the Oregon Guard say they learned of the exposure.

For veterans such as Scott Ashby of Portland, the proposed legislation promises help. "After five years of living with health problems, it's so nice to see we are starting to make some headway." said Ashby, 41.

In July 2005, the Department of Defense acknowledged soldiers' exposure to other hazards in Iraq including radiation at Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center; chemical and depleted uranium at Al-Samawah; lead at Camp War Eagle; the nerve-gas sarin in Baghdad; and hazardous smoke at the Al Mishraq Sulfur plant. Outside Iraq, soldiers faced industrial pollution at Ash Shuaiba Port in Kuwait and at Kharsi Khanabad in Uzbekistan.

Michelle Roberta said streamlining and informing the VA staff through a registry would help.

"You have to tell your story over and over," she said, "and that gets old." She hopes such tracking would help detect health problems that may not appear for years, especially cancer.

"It scares me to know that he might be a ticking time bomb," she said of her husband, Larry. "I keep telling him he's worth much more to me alive."

Link to Oregon Live and the article

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