‘Burn Pits’ pose possible health risk for troops, and pose challenge for scientists (WUNC)
U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan burned all kinds of waste — tons of it every day at some bases. Plastic and foam dinnerware from chow halls. Batteries. Paint. Tires. You name it. For service members working and living nearby, it was hard to avoid burning the smoke. “The smell was constant. You could smell it everywhere you went,” said Cindy Aman, who was a military police officer on several bases in the Middle East. Aman, 38, now lives in Delaware. After leaving the service, she joined a civilian police force and ran five or six miles a day to stay fit. But she started having trouble breathing. “I got to the point where I definitely wasn’t running anywhere close to that, and then I couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without being short of breath,” she said. Aman had to quit her job. Doctors were puzzled, but eventually, after she demanded a painful lung biopsy, she was diagnosed with something called constrictive bronchiolitis. Some researchers say the rare lung disease is unusually common among troops who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Aman suspects burn pit smoke is the main cause of her condition, combined with other pollutants she was exposed to in the Middle East, such as dust from the frequent sand storms. “That particulate matter over there so much finer than anywhere else in the world, so when you’re inhaling that our bodies are aren’t used to it and can’t expel it like normal,” Aman said. “So I think it was a combination of everything.” Legislation in the U.S. Senate calls on the Department of Veterans Afffairs to start a center to address the possible effects of exposure to burn pits and other environmental hazards in Afghanistan and Iraq. Researchers have already begun studying the issue, but they have a lot to untangle. Different bases burned different things. Many troops, including Aman, served in several places. And troops with different jobs would have been exposed to different toxins. What’s more, the so-called “moondust” in parts of southern Afghanistan — the powdery sand that coats everything — was different from the airborne grit in southern Iraq, or the smog, dust and fecal matter from open sewers in Kabul. The Senate bill — co-sponsored by North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar — says the proposed center should have ties to an emerging scientific field called medical geology. “Medical geology is a branch of geology that helps understand impacts of the earth and earth materials like dust, soils and rocks on human health,” explained Geoff Plumlee, a research geochemist and Associate Director of Environmental Health for the U.S. Geological Survey. Plumlee is among a small number of geologists who work on medical issues. They have increasingly been called in to help doctors and public health experts untangle complex issues involving like drifting volcanic and wildfire ash, naturally-occurring poisons in water and mine waste, and microbes in soil that cause disease. Plumlee and other geologists at the geological survey have been helping researchers at National Jewish Health in Denver study tissue from lung biopsies like the one Aman got. “A pathologist will take a look at a slice of that tissue, then we’ll get a slice,” Plumlee said. “We can identify what the different minerals that are present within the tissue are.” They can tell whether it’s a desert dust, or, say, an occupational exposure, like steel particles from welding. The researchers at the Denver hospital are writing up the results of the study now. And they’re planning more research, like finding a way to diagnose deployment-related lung problems without painful biopsies. “The primary goal among our membership is they simply would want to be treated,” said Tom Porter, the legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We’ve got a recent member survey where seventy-four percent of those respondents report that they were exposed to burn pits and other substances in the air, and sixty percent of those say that they’ve got symptoms as a result.” Porter himself says his two years serving in Kabul and in the Middle East gave him asthma. “I first noticed it in Afghanistan,” Porter said. “I was there for a year, and shortly after I arrived I had severe reactions to in my lungs to the pollution in the air.” Porter’s organization was one of the backers of a federal law passed two years ago that directed the VA to create a registry of veterans who believe they were exposed to smoke from the pits. Nearly 75,000 have signed up, but Porter says it’s crucial that more add their names to the list.
Commission to propose Tricare-like system for VA (MilitaryTimes)
A blue ribbon panel studying the future of Veterans Affairs health care is poised to recommend an overhaul to the system that would create a structure similar to the Pentagon’s Tricare program, where veterans could choose to use either the VA for their care or see a network provider. The goal, according to Commission on Care members, would be a more efficient version of the VA’s current system, in which the department provides direct care to most veterans, and those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or who cannot get an appointment in a month offered private care. Under the draft of the commission’s final report, all veterans enrolled in VA care would choose a primary care provider at the VA or from a civilian network. The plan would do away with the 30-day and 40-mile restrictions of the Veterans Choice program and create networks of physicians to care for former troops who prefer to see non-VA doctors. The Commission on Care was created by Congress in 2014 under the legislation that established the Veterans Choice program. It is tasked with reviewing the VA health system and making recommendations on its future. The panel’s final report is due by the end of June but on Tuesday, commissioners met in Washington, D.C. to revise a rough draft of the final. That draft calls for creating a new structure, the VHA Care System, responsible for overseeing VHA facilities as well as preferred provider networks managed by contractors. An appointed board of directors would provide oversight to the entire Veterans Health Administration. The draft calls for phasing in the new system, starting in areas where it is most needed. It also calls for giving VA the authority to close underperforming VA hospitals and clinics. “Under this proposal, [VHA] becomes a care system, a more integrated model where every component of it is designed to deliver the best care to veterans,” Commission chairwoman Nancy Schlichting said. The report also calls for giving some veterans who received other than honorable discharges access to VA health services. Under the draft, troops who have “substantial honorable service” before they got bad paper discharges would be considered for VA health care eligibility. The proposal also considers allowing VA to establish pilot programs that would provide veterans and spouses the option to purchase health care at VA. The estimated costs of these reform proposals were not available on Tuesday, but commissioners tossed out figures ranging from $100 billion to $1 trillion over 20 years. Schlichting said many factors contribute to cost estimates, including demand, cost savings from closures and realignments and improving information technology systems. But, she concurred, the reforms could be pricey. “I think we all agree if we increase choice, we increase costs,” Schlichting said. “Given the level of reform we are recommending, [VA] is going to need resources.” The department last year began a reform process known as MyVA, which aims to fix issues ranging from health care quality and access problems to information technology problems and the benefits appeals backlog. The 14-member commission has met 12 times since last September. Its work has been contentious, with veterans organizations, the White House and the VA speaking against any proposals to expand private care for veterans at the expense of VA medical centers and clinics. The commission will send its final report to Congress this month. Whether lawmakers will act on it remains to be seen, however. The Senate and House are considering legislative proposals to change the Veterans Choice program, ranging from expanding it to all enrolled veterans to requiring most veterans use private care.
World War II veterans, families remember 72nd anniversary of D-Day (Chicago Tribune)
Proud veterans in their 90s and families of fallen soldiers are commemorating the epochal D-Day invasion of Normandy 72 years ago that helped the Allies vanquish Hitler. They held small ceremonies and moments of remembrance Monday along the wide beaches and cliffs where thousands of U.S., British, Canadian and French troops landed as dawn was breaking June 6, 1944. It was a pivotal moment in World War II, weakening the Nazis’ hold on Western Europe after they suffered a punishing defeat in Stalingrad in the east. Henry Breton of Augusta, Maine, was among the shrinking number of D-Day survivors to make it to Normandy for Monday’s anniversary. Speaking at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Breton recalled landing in the second wave of boats, 35 minutes after the first, with the 106th Infantry Division. “We were off target,” he said, describing the German counterattack, and ensuing violence and valor he experienced at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. “It brings back so many memories,” he said, standing amid rows and rows of white crosses at the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. Visiting the D-Day beaches is a homecoming of sorts: Breton’s ancestors came to North America from Brittany in the 18th century, and during the war he met a Belgian woman who was his wife for 62 years until her death in 2009. Some veterans expressed disappointment that Monday’s ceremonies were low-key, especially compared with a sweeping ceremony for the 70th anniversary two years ago involving several world leaders. Breton, who describes himself as “91 and a half,” is hoping this visit isn’t his last. “I would like to be here on the 75th.” People of many nationalities came Monday to pay respects. A group of Germans wrote the name of a regiment on the sand as a group of Spanish history enthusiasts dressed as D-Day participants walked nearby. Peggy Harris of Vernon, Texas, was unable to come this year to visit the grave of her husband, 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris. But a good friend, Janie Simon, brought flowers and a sign asking visitors to email photos of the gravesite to his widow. “She feels blessed that even though she lost Billie in this quest for freedom, people come here. That gives her great comfort,” Simon said from the gravesite. Harris landed in Normandy on D-Day, was shot to death days later and buried by French villagers, but his wife didn’t find out what happened for more than 60 years. “She never remarried,” said Simon, who had an uncle who landed on Utah Beach and whose own husband fought in Vietnam. “It’s a real love story.” U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Hartley Baird from Pittsburgh sailed into Normandy in August 1944 and fought to liberate France from the Nazis. “I wouldn’t have survived if the men hadn’t cleared the way on D-Day,” he said at the American Cemetery, where he came to pay homage to “the true heroes, those that are buried here.”
Service project brings together generations of veterans on D-Day anniversary (MilitaryTimes)
To commemorate the anniversary of D-Day this year, a group of post-9/11 veterans teamed with fifth graders to help spruce up the National WWII Memorial in Washington as members of the Greatest Generation looked on. Call it cross-generational community building. Monday’s event, organized by Got Your 6, was as much about landscape and repair work as it was about bringing different age groups together to reflect on what military service means for both veterans and the country. “For me, as a Iraq War veteran, it’s important that we honor the veterans before us,” said Bill Rausch, executive director of Got Your 6. “And for our team, we can’t think of a better way of honoring their legacy than by serving our communities and setting an example.” The event brought together more than 100 volunteers from a cross section of veterans groups and about 50 fifth graders from nearby Georgetown Day School. Teachers said those students spent most of the year learning about military operations through American history, from the Revolutionary War to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working alongside several generations of veterans made for a logical closing lesson. Monday marked the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, one of the most pivotal points of American involvement in World War II, but also one of the deadliest in U.S. history. Fewer than 1.1 million U.S. veterans from that war are still alive today.
Veterans provide flooding relief in the wake of Fort Hood deaths (Stars and Stripes)
Barrett Frantzen stood on the bank of the Medina River and looked up at the gutted RV’s axles pointing toward the sky. “This makes you appreciate what flood water can do,” said the 34-year-old chainsaw-toting Army veteran working with Team Rubicon, a veterans disaster relief organization. Frantzen is one of the local volunteers mobilized after storms last week quickly dumped 10 inches of rain in the county, killing 16 people across the state and collapsing roofs and surging in low areas to uproot broad cedar trees off quiet back roads. Bandera, which is about 40 miles northwest of San Antonio, and the surrounding area were affected by the storm that ravaged Fort Hood on Thursday, killing nine soldiers when their Light Medium Tactical Vehicle overturned at a low-water crossing. Three soldiers, also in the vehicle when it overturned, were rescued by first responders and later released from the hospital on base. Officials have declined to say whether any of the soldiers were wearing body armor or packs that might have weighed them down, citing a pending investigation into the incident. The deaths of nine soldiers hit close to home for the Team Rubicon volunteers, some of whom served at the post and have been close to its recent run of tragedies, including the day in November 2009 when Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire on post, killing 13 and wounding 33. … The storm’s devastation compelled Frantzen to volunteer with Team Rubicon for the first time. The organization dispatches veterans to disaster areas around the world, transforming military skills and organization into humanitarian relief. Frantzen linked up with veterans in the area to help clear out flooded houses and remove debris from destroyed vehicles. He knows the area and the people in need. He knows the bends of the Medina River by heart and can rattle off the local history of flooding going back 20 years. He felt valued here, putting his grit to use in helping others. In one week, Team Rubicon, with 45 volunteers and community members, helped salvage and clean out 13 houses, saving thousands of dollars for homeowners, some of whom were still recovering from flooding last year. … The operation was also a first for Keith Schmidt, 46, a retired Army tank crewman who lives on the doorstep of Fort Hood in Morganville. The destruction felt oddly familiar to him. … The smell took him back to this time in Baghdad with the 1st Cavalry Division, where the smell of putrid flood water was close to the odor of trash and open sewers. “It feels pretty good to help people out here,” Schmidt said. “In one moment, people can lose everything.” That’s especially true for Fort Hood, his former duty station. To live in central Texas is to know the destruction powerful storms can bring. “We say train as you fight,” Schmidt said. “But to lose soldiers like that, it hurts everyone who was ever stationed there.” As the operation wound down late Monday afternoon, the few remaining volunteers munched on chili hot dogs provided by a local restaurant. These veterans are well versed in military training but also in natural disasters, with the flooding deaths a converging point between the two. They speculated on how the truck was overturned and who was accountable, especially with four soldiers with seven months of experience or less. One soldier just enlisted in December. Whatever answers the investigation might bring, the human cost is staggering.
Miss USA, an Army reservist, to tackle military suicide, PTSD and other veterans issues (ArmyTimes)
The newly crowned Miss USA is a 26-year-old Army officer from the District of Columbia who gave perhaps the strongest answer of the night when asked about women in combat. “As a woman in the United States Army, I think … we are just as tough as men. As a commander of my unit, I’m powerful, I am dedicated,” Deshauna Barber said. “Gender does not limit us in the United States.” The winner of Sunday’s 2016 Miss USA competition held at the T-Mobile Arena off the Las Vegas Strip will go on to compete in the Miss Universe contest. Barber is the first-ever military member to win Miss USA. In a press conference following the event, the 26-year-old lieutenant from Northeast DC said she plans to take a break from the Army Reserves and had already discussed with superiors the possibility of going inactive for a couple of years should she win the title. She said she currently serves two days per month.”My commander should be watching right now,” Barber said. “Two days a month is definitely not active duty. It is an obligation that I signed up for but they are very flexible in the United States Army Reserves.” Barber said she plans to use the pageant’s spotlight and her title to support veterans’ causes and tackle the issue of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among military members. When asked what message she had for the presidential candidates — including former pageant owner and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump — Barber said they should focus more on veterans’ issues, including the backlog at veterans hospitals.
Former Marine walking to DC to raise awareness of veterans’ suicide (WSET)
Monday is only day six of Terry Sharpe’s 22 day hike. “I’m sore, I hurt,” Sharpe said. He’s walking 22 days for the 22* veterans that commit suicide each day, according to a 2012 Veterans Affairs Report. He’s not letting the swollen feet and the tough miles stop him from traveling from North Carolina all the way to Washington DC. “I’m a veteran,” Sharpe said. “And I do it because I feel like I have to do it.” He carries the names of the veterans who recently committed suicide. He’s traveling more than 300 miles with just the United States and the Prisoner of War flag on his backpack. Friend and fellow former Marine Allen Brown is traveling with him. “I see to it he’s got water, ice water, Gatorade along the way and every so often check on him,” Brown said. “Make sure he’s making out ok and not having any problem.” For anyone that passes Sharpe on his journey, he only asks for one thing: “Pay attention,” Sharpe said. “Talk to your veteran. Carry them out to lunch or breakfast. Call them, check on them. Things like that can help.” When Sharpe gets to Washington, he plans on meeting with leaders to ask for better programs and healthcare for veterans… especially those who suffer from PTSD. The Lynchburg American Legion is holding a special encouraging rally for Sharpe on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. They are asking for people from the public to come out and cheer Sharpe on. The rally will be held at American Legion Post 16, 1301 Greenview Drive.
Illinois to receive $1.3M to help house homeless veterans (WGNtv.com)
Federal officials are giving Illinois nearly $1.3 million to help find permanent housing for 155 homeless veterans in the state. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The rental assistance was announced last week. In Illinois the money will go to housing authorities in Chicago and Cook County, Joliet, Peoria, Springfield, Rock Island, Rockford and Waukegan. The largest amount, more than $900,000, will go to the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. Nearly $140,000 will go to the Hines VA Medical Center in Chicago.
Las Vegas, Reno-area programs getting homeless veterans help (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Homeless veterans programs in Las Vegas and the Reno area are getting more than $430,000 in federal grants to help more than 60 people with housing and medical services. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus announced Monday that the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority and the VA’s Southern Nevada Health Care System will get a little more than $300,000. That should pay for 40 rental assistance vouchers and access to medical services. In northern Nevada, the Reno Housing Authority and Sierra Nevada Health Care System will get almost $131,000 to offer 23 similar housing vouchers and medical services. The Democratic congresswoman says the funds are coming from the federal Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments. Titus is a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.