“But this Veterans Day, I believe we should do more than sing the praises of the bravery and patriotism that our veterans have embodied in the past. We should take this opportunity to re-evaluate how we are treating our veterans in the present.”
—Congressman Nick Lampson (D-Texas)
In contemplating the sacrifices the men and women of our armed forces this most recent Veterans Day, we should be mindful that not all the risks they face are related to bullets, missiles and bombs. Whether on the front lines or in support positions, members of the military face a whole host of threats from exposures to hazardous materials. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides significant information outlining those threats either by identifying specific health concerns, the theater or the types of exposures.
In World War I, gaseous hazardous materials, like chlorine gas, mustard gas and phosgene, were used weapons against troops. Ultimately, the international community banned chemical weapons, but that didn’t stop them from being made or stockpiled. Famously, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein manufactured chemical weapons and may have used them on his own population and Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, but fears that he would use chemical weapons against allied troops fighting in the first Gulf War never materialized. In the recent Iraqi War, abandoned stockpiles of pre-1991 chemical weapons continue to be found.
In Vietnam, troops were exposed a number of herbicides, most famously Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate trees and other vegetation that provided cover and food for guerrilla forces. In the war’s aftermath, civilians and soldiers who were exposed to the chemical complained of a variety of maladies, like increased rates of cancer and leukemia. Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, which declared certain conditions as “presumptive” of Agent Orange exposure and made veterans eligible to receive treatment and compensation.
Chemical warfare and Agent Orange are just two of the more famous examples of the exposure threats faced by soldiers in the past. The VA has identified a variety of exposures related to service during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. Each has its own unique exposures and threats that may require screening and treatment.
Those who fought and served during these wars and engagements may receive health care and benefits through the VA, as may their dependents and survivors. These benefits include a health assessment and continued monitoring. The VA also provides health care and continues to study war-related illnesses. If you feel that you may have been exposed as a result of your service, you should contact the VA.
Those who serve our country may face harm from their service long after leaving the theater of operations. We owe it to them to make sure that in addition to honoring their service, we provide them with the care and treatment they deserve. Otherwise, those verbal expressions of gratitude for their sacrifice are mere platitudes.
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