It’s time for Congress and the VA to address victims of military toxins

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This past Memorial Day, some, not many, Americans took time from their day off and barbecue parties to place their hand on their hearts and honor those who have fallen in defense of our nation. Even fewer took the time to commemorate those who are dying because of their exposure to military toxic chemicals. These veterans are casualties of military service whose premature deaths, unfortunately, pass without notice. 

On Armed Forces Day, May 20, 2017, veterans from across the country gathered together to share experiences and to remember sick and dying compatriots in Operation Stand Together. The rally brought causalities of atomic testing, agent orange, the chemical cocktails of Fort McClellan, the Camp Lejeune water system and burn pits to attest to the effects of these and other toxic exposures. Erin Brockovich was the featured speaker. Additional speeches by retired Marine Corps General and Congressman Jack Bergman and Congressman Dan Kildee helped to highlight the plight of these veterans. 

{mosads}Congress has seemed powerless to solve the problem. A limited bill sponsored by Congressman David Valadao (R-Calif.) to provide agent orange benefits to veterans who served in the bays, harbors and territorial seas of Vietnam has been stalled for years. This is despite the fact that over half the Members of Congress have signed on as cosponsors of HR 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017. The seemingly insurmountable hurdle is the CBO score of $1.1 billion over ten years that requires an offset under the Pay as You Go Act of 2010 (PAYGO). Previous attempts to generate offsets have been stymied by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).


The Operation Stand Together rally was the first attempt to unite the victims of toxic exposure and to plan a comprehensive approach. Currently there are a number of individual toxic exposure bills such as Senator Claire McCaskill’s Aria Harrell mustard gas bill, Congressman Dennis Ross’ Agent Orange Guam bill, Senator Richard Burr’s Janey Ensminger Act of 2017,, and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty’s Help Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act. These bills take a piecemeal approach to provide some relief to individual groups of dying veterans. Like the Blue Water bill, cost, along with VA intransigence appears to be the prohibitive factor in enacting these measures.

Last year the Congress passed the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016, which called for the Veterans Affairs to initiate research into toxic exposure. That is a start but a more wide-ranging effort needs to be enacted. Organizations such as Military-Veterans Advocacy and Operation Stand Together are working to develop a comprehensive bill to fund research and benefits for the victims of toxic exposure. To meet the PAYGO requirements, without cutting other benefits, a new funding source is required. Providing coverage for all victims of toxic exposure is going to be expensive with some estimates reaching $20-25 billion over ten years.

One funding mechanism being discussed is a filing fee for income tax returns. This $10.00 “Freedom Fee” would apply equally to all personal and corporate returns. There would be no exceptions. Approximately 250 million tax returns are filed annually in the United States.. Accordingly, the “Freedom Fee” would be expected to generate $25 billion over ten years. 

The funds generated would be placed in a dedicated Veterans Benefits Trust Fund, which could only be used for toxic exposure research and benefit funding. Reallocation of any funds could only be made with a Presidential finding of necessity and the concurrence of 2/3 of both Houses of Congress. Given the current politically toxic environment, getting the concurrence of 2/3 of both the Senate and the House of Representatives would be unlikely absent an invasion from outer space. 

Some may call the “Freedom Fee” a new tax and perhaps it is. Some may argue that it violates the Grover Norquist no tax pledge, and perhaps it does. But Congress and the government have a constitutional requirement to raise an Army and a Navy. Inherent in that duty is the moral and legal obligation to take care of the veterans. If that takes a dedicated tax increase of $10.00 per person per year, less than the cost of a movie ticket, then so be it. It is the right thing to do.

The bottom line is that the Congress needs to decide whether they are going to provide medical treatment and compensation for veterans exposed to toxic substances within the scope of their military duties. Members of Congress, the VA and others stand up every Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day and pledge to care for veterans. Unfortunately, they fail to keep that pledge. Most veterans agree that it would be better to not “talk the talk” if the government refuses to “walk the walk.” 

While $25 billion over ten years or $2.5 billion per year is a lot of money, it is a minuscule part of the $4.5 trillion annual budget. The “Freedom Fee” is a viable means of complying with PAYGO. Other ideas are welcome. But we should no longer ignore the problem. Our veterans are dying because of toxic exposure. Now is the time to take care of them. So, let’s do it. 

John B. Wells is a retired Navy Commander. After retirement, he became an attorney practicing military and veterans law. He is Executive Director of the nonprofit Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bernie Sanders Claire McCaskill Patrick Leahy Richard Blumenthal Richard Burr

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