It started with the recognition of the need to find the cause of birth defects, learning disabilities, and cancers afflicting too many of our children and grandchildren from our exposures to the malignant TCDD dioxin that lurked in Agent Orange, a reality Vietnam veterans did not learn about until long after we returned home.
TCDD, the acronym for the most lethal member of the dioxin family, can contaminate the health of those of us exposed in country, as well as our progeny. This is not to say that other ingredients in Agent Orange and other herbicides are not toxic, because they are. So we wonder: What health conditions could be attributed to the offspring of men and women caught in the path of the toxic plume generated by the explosion of what was called an ammo dump in Khamisiyah during the first Gulf War, or from exposures to the toxic fog from the burn pits that pockmarked the landscape of Iraq and Afghanistan during our recent military ventures?
Twenty-five years ago, Vietnam Veterans of America was the lead veterans service organization advocating and agitating for the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991. This legislation recognized that troops who served in the Vietnam theatre of operations had been exposed to a toxic agent that was associated with several health-defying diseases.
Over the past quarter century, the VA has added a dozen maladies with some degree of association as determined by an eminent assemblage of experts empaneled by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM is one of the entities comprising the National Institutes of Health.
Yet the only health conditions a VA Secretary has granted for our progeny are spina bifida for the offspring of male veterans exposed to Agent Orange and, for the offspring of female veterans similarly exposed, nineteen anomalies in newborns. That’s only thanks to the late Sen. Arlen Spector, who pushed a bill through Congress that made the VA recognize those birth anomalies.
During this time, the efforts of VVA’s Agent Orange Committee, aided and abetted by our Government Affairs and Benefits departments, focused for the most part on expanding the list of presumptive, service-connected conditions, and acting on behalf of scores of veterans afflicted with these maladies in their effort to secure the care, treatment, and recompense they deserve and to which they are entitled.
All during this time, though, we kept hearing about children—and their children—seemingly wounded in the womb. So, VVA leaders and the Agent Orange Committee took the lead in working with local VVA chapters and state councils to conduct town hall meetings across the country to provide information and to hear from veterans and their families devastated by severe health issues.
National President John Rowan and special advisor Jack McManus, assisted by national staff, sought out key members of Congress to develop bipartisan and bicameral legislation. Recognizing present-day political realities, and following our founding principle, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another, ” VVA worked with Sens. Moran and Blumenthal and with Reps. Benishek and Honda to draw up model legislation that embraced toxic exposures in all eras and deployments.
The first real bill was introduced in the last Congress. Although it garnered several original co-sponsors and a hearing in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the bill never received a Senate committee hearing, in part because it was late in the session.
Early in the current Congress, with alterations to the bill that met the concerns of our colleagues in other VSOs, H.R.1769 and S.90, The Toxic Exposure Research Act of 2015, was co-sponsored by more than seventy-four members of the House and fourteen senators. President Rowan, calling this the most significant veterans’ legislation since the enactment of the Agent Orange Act, has met with dozens of elected officials and has testified before the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees and pushed for swift passage in both houses.
VVA members across the country have been contacting their elected representatives and senators with a clear and simple message: If you really want to help the veterans you represent, understand the lingering legacy of toxic exposures and support this legislation—and let’s get the Toxic Exposure Research Act enacted into the law of the land.