Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Life and Death of the Veteran Advocate

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To many of the aging officials inside Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Kristofer Goldsmith represented the future.

A bearded, telegenic, post-9/11 veteran with sharp political instincts, strong policy chops, and a Twitter-famous dog named Frosting, Goldsmith injected some much-needed vim and vigor into the seasoned organization.

In his four years at VVA, Goldsmith cracked open the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to former service members like himself with so-called “bad paper” discharges. He also helped pass the Forever G.I. Bill, pushed back on VA privatization efforts, and spent months down an Internet rabbit hole investigating Russian trolls targeting those who served.

Then, this summer, as Goldsmith was wrapping up a detailed report on racial inequities in VA healthcare, he and 12 other staffers were abruptly laid off due to financial damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. In the blink of an eye, VVA’s once-sizable and strong government affairs team was slashed to two people. One of them is Goldsmith’s mentor, Rick Weidman, a gruff Vietnam veteran and VVA co-founder with a sweet side.

Weidman, like many vets, witnessed far too much violence in his time overseas as an Army medic. After he returned home, Weidman lent his voice to the unprecedented chorus of veterans speaking viscerally about war trauma. "I remember smoking a Camel cigarette and thinking, ‘This is all happening and I don't feel anything,’” Weidman once said while reflecting on his service. “I had successfully shut down to get the job done there. The problem is getting unfrozen later."

Weidman’s list of policy accomplishments is far too long to tick off here. But much of his energy has gone towards unfreezing veterans. Over many hard-fought battles, he’s successfully pushed the VA to properly recognize and treat PTSD. Weidman’s also spent years working to secure greater health benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals dumped over Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand, a toxic mission with a cruel motto: “only you can prevent a forest.”

Weidman’s made a difference largely because he’s unafraid to challenge power. He sometimes forgoes his official, drawn-out VVA job title for something more striking: “Well-Known Troublemaker for Vietnam Veterans of America.”

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EPA hired consultants to counter staff experts on fluoride

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At a trial over fluoride regulations this summer, EPA eschewed its own experts, hiring an outside company often deployed by corporations to deny and downplay chemicals' health impacts.

Exponent Inc. — founded in the 1960s to defend automobile manufacturers in accident lawsuits — has since been busy questioning whether smoking causes lung cancer, whether Agent Orange exposure leads to prostate cancer, and whether per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are linked to kidney cancer.

Testifying for EPA in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Exponent experts cast doubt on studies that underpin federal regulation of lead and mercury, even as the agency's own scientists — under subpoena by the plaintiffs — said new research does indeed warrant a review of fluoride's neurotoxic effects.

That EPA would favor "rented white coats" over federal experts underscores just how cozy President Trump's EPA has become with industry, experts say.

"You don't hire Exponent to give you fresh eyes and an independent view to protect public health. You hire Exponent to defend a chemical," said David Michaels, who formerly led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has written two books on what he calls the "product defense" industry.

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Canadian farmer vs. Monsanto on the big screen in 'Percy'

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Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian legend.

Schmeiser is the Saskatchewan farmer who went up against biotech giant Monsanto, battling all the way to the Supreme Court. He is regarded as a hero to farmers and environmentalists around the world.

In the late 1990s,in Bruno, Sask., Schmeiser and Monsanto entered into a lengthy legal battle over pesticide-resistant canola seeds.

Monsanto told Schmeiser that he couldn’t use their GMO canola seeds without paying for a license to do so; Schmeiser never bought or asked for Monsanto’s canola seeds, claiming some blew onto his land from another farmer’s field.

Monsanto said pay up. Schmeiser said no. The fight was on.

The very idea of some small-town Canadian farmer in court against Monsanto lent itself to David and Goliath comparisons, and Schmeiser’s story got a lot of attention at the time.

It still does.

Percy, a new film directed by Clark Johnson and starring Christopher Walken as Schmeiser, opened in theatres last Friday in major cities across Canada. The cast of the film includes Zach Braff, Adam Beach, Christina Ricci and Luke Kirby.

This is the sixth film about Percy Schmeiser’s legendary fight with Monsanto.

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Monday, October 12, 2020

'Poisoning the Pacific': New book details US military contamination of islands and ocean

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In 1968, Leroy Foster was a master sergeant in the US Air Force, assigned to the Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, a United States island territory in the Pacific. The day after he arrived on the island, he recalled being ordered to mix “diesel fuel with Agent Orange”, then spraying “it by truck all over the base to kill the jungle overgrowth”.

Soon after, Foster suffered serious skin complaints and eventually fell sick with Parkinson’s and ischemic heart disease. Later, his daughter had cancer as a teenager, and his grandchild was born with 12 fingers, 12 toes, and a heart murmur. Foster died in 2018.

A new book, Poisoning the Pacific, to be released Monday, chronicles the US military’s decades-long contamination of indigenous lands across the Pacific as well as the ocean itself, endangering lives and ecosystems across the vast Pacific Ocean.

Written by British journalist Jon Mitchell, Poisoning the Pacific is based on more than 12,000 pages of documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and through interviews with local residents, military veterans and researchers.

The book argues that for decades, the US has treated its territories in the Pacific with negligence, allowing its military to violate indigenous rights, seize land, and damage delicate ecosystems.

US military planes parked on the tarmac of Andersen Air Force base on the island of Guam, a US Pacific Territory.

Alongside Foster’s case - after years of campaigning the airman was ultimately compensated for his exposure on the island - Mitchell’s book details US military operations over decades contaminating the Pacific with toxic substances including radioactive waste, nerve agents, and dioxin-tainted Agent Orange.

“US authorities have repeatedly tried to cover up contamination through lies, disinformation and attacks on reporters,” Mitchell told The Guardian. “I have experienced this pressure firsthand.”

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VA approves claims for more than 22,500 Blue Water Navy veterans

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Nine months after the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) began processing Agent Orange disability claims for Blue Water Navy veterans, more than 22,500 have been finalized, resulting in more than $640 million in payments to veterans or their surviving dependents.

Blue Water Navy veterans waited nearly 50 years to receive disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure until The American Legion-backed Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was signed into law on June 25. This act extends disability benefits covering medical conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure to those who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam — impacting an estimated 90,000 veterans.

VA’s collaboration with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has resulted in the digitization of more than 29 million images from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deck logs. Data — such as ship names, dates and coordinates — is then fed to an internal, claims-related processing system that identifies vessels that may have traveled within the offshore waters of Vietnam. This new approach has resulted in a faster, more accurate decision the first time a claim is reviewed.

"The team at NARA recognizes the importance of this effort making it easier for Blue Water Navy veterans to receive the benefits they've earned without burdening them with paperwork,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a release. “Since Jan. 1, VA has processed thousands of claims and encourages every veteran, dependent and surviving spouse who is eligible to file a claim as soon as possible.”

The American Legion has long fought and advocated for the rights of Blue Water Navy veterans and in 2016 passed Resolution No. 246 that supported "legislation to amend title 38, United States Code, to presume exposure to Agent Orange for any military personnel who served during the Vietnam War on any vessel that came within 12 nautical miles of the coastlines of Vietnam."

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Coronavirus deaths among VA patients top 3,500 this week as number of cases slowly increases

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The number of active coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients continued to slowly rise in recent days as the total number of deaths from the virus among department patients rose above 3,500 this week.

As of Tuesday evening, VA reported 3,641 active cases of the virus, an increase of 7 percent in the last week and more than 21 percent in the last month. The cases are spread out across 139 department medical centers nationwide.

Active cases of the virus had dropped below 2,500 in mid-September, but have risen slowly since then. Those totals topped 6,400 in mid-July, when the outbreak within the VA patient population was at its peak.

VA officials have said they do not consider the active case counts or death totals to be accurate measures of the severity of the ongoing pandemic among their patient population. Instead, they point to hospitalization rates among patients who test positive, which have remained steady over the last few months.

As of Tuesday afternoon, department medical staff were caring for 340 inpatients with complications related to coronavirus.

On Wednesday morning, the death total among the VA patient population was 3,528. That figure is up almost 300 individuals in the last 20 days. Nationally, more than 210,000 individuals have died from complications related to the virus.

The fatality rate among VA patients who test positive for the illness is about 5.5 percent, well above the 3 percent rate for the rest of the country. But VA officials have cautioned against comparing their patient population to the rest of the country, noting the increased dangers the virus presents to individuals who are elderly and infirm, two descriptors that encompass most of the department’s medical cases.

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

October is Agent Orange Awareness Month


‘Greater Love Hath No Man:’ Marines in Congress request Camp Reasoner sign be sent from Vietnam to the US

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On a hill near Da Nang, Vietnam, sat Camp Reasoner ― home of the Marine Corps' 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and later 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the Vietnam War.

The camp was named after 1st Lt. Frank Reasoner, the second Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the war, and was marked by a stone that bore a hand-lettered message to the fallen Marine.

“'First Lieutenant Reasoner sacrificed his life to save one of his wounded Marines. ‘Greater Love Hath No Man,’” the stone said, according to the Marine Corps University.

On Monday 12 Marine veterans and members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on him to begin negotiations with Vietnam to have the stone sent to the U.S. where the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion will host it on Camp Pendleton, California.

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Wife of deceased Air Reserve Technician hopes law will help others

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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Amy Delcambre is now a single mother of three.

Her husband, Air Force Reserve Tech Sgt. Sean Delcambre died in August 2019 from cancer, a cancer she believes was caused by exposure to hexavalent chromium during the time he worked at Keesler’s 403rd Maintenance Wing. His entire career was spent at the 403rd.

Sean Delcambre was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018. Just over a year later, he died at age 34.

“She was just over 18 months old when Sean passed way,” Amy said of Lucia. “Of course all the time, she says ‘I miss daddy.’ They ask about daddy all the time, they all miss daddy.”

Their three girls are now 7, 5, and 3. They watched as their father faded quickly under the weight of his cancer.

A WLOX News investigation last year uncovered documents showing the 403rd violated OSHA standards for exposure to the chemical during the time Delcambre worked there. Internal memos noted the paint facility at the 403rd had been broken since 2008, and as a result, Air Reserve Technicians spent their days blasting and painting airplane parts in an “open work bay” with “no control of particulates.”

Air Force records confirm those particulates contained hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing ingredient made famous in the movie “Erin Brokovich.”

Multiple documents called for a better decontamination facility beginning in 2012. It took until 2018 for the unit to formally call for a “clean room” to “reduce the spread of CrVI (Hexavalent Chromium).”

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Families of veterans who die from coronavirus would have survivor benefits protected under House bill

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WASHINGTON — A House bill introduced Thursday would ensure that any veteran who dies from coronavirus in the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs would have service-connected disabilities noted in the cause of death to protect survivor benefits.

If an autopsy of a veteran now states the cause of death is coronavirus instead of a service-connected disability, it has the potential to jeopardize survivor benefits, which are typically awarded to families of veterans who died from an injury or illness related to their military service.

The Ensuring Survivors Benefits during COVID-19 Act, introduced by Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, would require VA to account for service-related disabilities that might have exacerbated the virus and contributed to the death of a veteran.

“Presently, the cause of death rulings threatens benefits veterans have earned,” Davidson, a former Army infantry officer, said in a statement. “Congress must act to ensure that the VA accurately deals with the cause of death while accounting for service-related injuries in order to properly care for all surviving family members.”

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Monday, October 5, 2020

VA finishes digitizing deck logs for blue water Vietnam veterans, should speed disability claims

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In a move that should speed up disability claims for some Vietnam veterans, officials announced Monday they have completed digitizing thousands of deck logs from ships stationed offshore during that war, enabling researchers to better determine where troops served and what toxins they may have encountered.

Completion of the project is the culmination of more than a year of work between Veterans Affairs and 

National Archives and Records Administration officials. The move was prompted by legislation passed in summer 2019 mandating VA award presumptive benefits status to veterans who served in the waters off Vietnam during the war there five decades ago.

Department officials said they have awarded roughly $641 million to more than 22,524 blue water Navy veterans or survivors since the start of this year. But advocates have estimated that as many as 90,000 Vietnam veterans may be eligible for those payouts, and the digitized deck logs are expected to help with that application process.

Benefits for ‘blue water’ veterans finalized after years-long fight

The move ends a years-long fight to get faster disability benefits for up to 90,000 Navy veterans who served in Vietnam.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the move should make it easier for veterans “to receive the benefits they’ve earned without burdening them with paperwork.”

At issue is how the department had handled claims related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.

Under previous VA rules, service members who were stationed on the ground or on ships near the coast were presumed to have had exposure to the chemical defoliant and other carcinogenic herbicides. When illnesses arose later in life and they applied for disability claims, their claims were approved without requiring additional documentation. 

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The All-Too-Real Consequences of Military War Games

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Decades of US naval drills on a Puerto Rican island may have inflicted untold collateral damage. Armed forces everywhere should learn the lesson.

Militaries around the world train regularly to ensure troops stay fit for combat, but for one army at least, the drills have become deadlier than the real deal. Between 2006 and 2020, accidents accounted for about 32 percent, or 5,605, of military deaths in the United States Armed Forces, twice the number killed in action. Elsewhere in the world, military training mishaps likewise make the headlines whenever they happen.

While the toll war games exacts on soldiers is well-documented and often well-publicised, less understood is their impact on people who live near military bases and training grounds. Given that armed forces continue to hold training exercises around the world, we would benefit from a better understanding of the potential impact of these practices on the physical and mental health on nearby populations.

My latest paper, “Military training exercises, pollution, and their consequences for health”, co-authored with Gustavo Bobonis and Leonardo Tovar, studies the effect of US Navy drills on the health of babies born in the Puerto Rican territory of Vieques. Bombing activity there led to short-term increases in water pollution, which has been linked to increased frequency of miscarriages and congenital anomalies. We found that the sudden end of bombing drills in July 2000 coincided with a 56 to 79 percent decrease in the incidence of congenital anomalies.

Bombing and babies

For the 60 years until 2001, Vieques, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, hosted a range of US Navy exercises including ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing by naval aircraft, and Marine amphibious landing. Military training and operations were conducted in the eastern end of Vieques, while the western end was used to store munitions. The island’s population of about 9,300 (as of 2010) live in the centre. 

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