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How Wounded Warrior Project is Tackling Toxic Exposure

For nearly two decades, post-9/11 veterans have been exposed to contaminants such as burn pits, toxic fragments, radiation, and other hazardous materials on deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. Now, many of them are experiencing severe, rare, and early-onset health conditions. Since these illnesses often do not manifest until years after discharge, many veterans struggle to obtain health care and benefits from the Department of Affairs (VA) in connection with these conditions.

“Wounded Warrior Project believes that veterans of all eras who suffer from toxic exposures deserve access to lifesaving health care and a system that requires VA to respond to scientific data in a timely, transparent manner,” said Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) CEO Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Linnington. “We can and must honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s warriors by working with Congress to provide the necessary care and resources to help those suffering from these wounds of war.”

WWP is committed to addressing veterans’ toxic wounds veterans as urgently as we address other physical and invisible wounds of war. Guided by feedback gathered in our 2020 Annual Warrior Survey, we have identified toxic exposure as a priority to address with Congress. The survey data showed 89% of survey respondents indicated they were “definitely or probably” exposed to toxic substances during their military service. Of those, 98% report one or more symptoms or illnesses related to those exposures. The largest sources of exposure were burn pits (85.7%); sand, dust, and particles (75.5%); occupational hazards such as solvents and asbestos (43.7%); pesticides (30.3%); and depleted uranium (20.3%). 

Learn more about toxic exposureWWP’s other legislative priorities, and how we work with our nation’s leaders to improve the lives of wounded veterans and their families.

While WWP survey data provides an overview of how toxic exposures affect the population we serve, it does not capture the individual challenges that exposed warriors face daily. They struggle with health problems associated with their severe illnesses. Their health struggles are compounded by policies that often make it difficult for them to access the health care and benefits they desperately need. Some of these warriors chose to share their stories under pseudonyms to protect their identities:

  • Most of “Steve’s” service took place before 9/11 in the U.S. Navy. During that time, he served on a foreign deployment to the Red Sea and at two domestic duty stations, where he reports he was exposed to toxic substances. He completed his service in 2003 and was shocked to be diagnosed in 2016 with stage 4 neuroendocrine tumor cancer (NET). The rare form of cancer resulted in harmful tumors in and around Steve’s adrenal glands. In 2019, he filed a claim for VA disability compensation, asserting that military toxic exposures caused his cancer. VA promptly denied the claim without seeking a medical opinion because he did not have a NET diagnosis in service.
  • “Sarah” served as a logistics officer and quartermaster in the Army National Guard. While deployed to Iraq, she suffered exposure to neurotoxins emitted by open-air burn pits. In 2006 after returning home, Sarah was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which she believes was caused by burn pit exposure. While this is a serious and debilitating illness, she was fortunate to be diagnosed while she was still in service. Consequently, VA recognizes Sarah’s disability as service-connected, and she was retired from the National Guard in 2008. Since then, our Independence Program team has been working with her to help maximize her independence.
  • Serving in the U.S. Army and National Guard for more than 20 years, “Jeff” deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. As an Army Sapper disarming improvised explosive devices, Jeff’s job involved countless hazardous missions. While overseas, he always seemed to be covered with dust. When Jeff left the Army 10 years ago, he did not know that a rare and aggressive leukemia that carries a high mortality rate was taking root inside his body. When our WWP service officer first met Jeff in 2016, he was a physically fit 49-year-old who liked to run and did not smoke or drink. Two years later, his cancer had destroyed his immune system. A recent test showed levels of heavy metals that exceeded three times the normal upper limit. Yet even though he has produced every piece of evidence requested, we have been unsuccessful in obtaining a medical opinion supporting the connection between his toxic exposure and leukemia.

Key Bills to Support Veterans Affected by Toxic Exposure
Because the primary issue with toxic exposures is proving eligibility, WWP is supporting legislation that will reform existing policies and improve access to care and eligibility criteria. These key pieces of legislation, supported by numerous members of Congress, other veterans service organizations, and WWP, include:

S.927 / H.R.2127 TEAM Act ​

  • Grants VA healthcare enrollment eligibility to all veterans who suffered toxic exposures while in service, regardless of their service-connected disability claim status.​
  • Adopts a framework that requires VA to establish presumptive service connection when there is scientific evidence of association between all toxic exposures and illnesses.​

S.952 / H.R.2372 Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters ​Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act ​

  • Establishes presumptive service connection for 20 cancers and respiratory conditions that Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances experience.​

S.437 / H.R.2436 Veterans Burn Pits Exposure Recognition Act​

  • Concedes exposure to burn pits or other toxic substances to ease the evidentiary burden on deployed Gulf War and post-9/11 veterans when filing claims for direct service connection.​

WWP continues working with the TEAM Coalition, a group of over 30 military and veteran service organizations and experts, to collectively gather data, raise awareness, promote research, and advocate for legislation addressing the impact of toxic exposures on those who have been made ill as the result of their military service. ​

“Effectively addressing toxic exposure will take the combined efforts of warriors who engage with us through our advocacy efforts, our allies in the military and veteran community, and our nation’s leaders,” Linnington said. “We’re confident that we can ensure the next generation of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances are not starting from square one like each generation before them.”

Contact: Mattison Brooks — Communications Specialist mbrooks@woundedwarriorproject.org, 202.969.1120

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.