Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writers are not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Saturday, veterans and supporters are making their voices heard at Operation Stand Together, a one-day rally in Washington, D.C., led by veterans, military families and others from around the country to urge action on the issue of toxic exposure and water contamination.
The event will urge leaders in Washington to finally take comprehensive action to aid the hundreds of thousands (and likely millions) of veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals and become ill due to their service to the nation. Congressional leadership and key guest speakers from the veteran and health communities will be rallying their support at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall; more information is available at OperationStandTogether.org.
The issue of toxic exposure has slowly gained traction in the national public health debate as Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans are now, more frequently, presenting symptoms of health ailments linked to their service. Health problems emanating from exposure to burn pits, depleted uranium and other airborne hazards is strongly suspected, specifically related to veterans who served in Iraq.
Previous generations of veterans, particularly of the Vietnam War, have struggled with effectively pressuring Congress for the help they deserved. Their march for post-war care, specifically related to toxic exposure, was often overshadowed by an American public haunted by a war they lost confidence in supporting, to the detriment of those who fought it.
The problem of toxic exposures is often overlooked by the more visible wounds of war. However, toxic exposures also prove to be fatal and significantly diminish the quality of life for veterans absent prompt detection and high quality treatment.
We must urge Congress to pass comprehensive legislation to research, detect, treat and care for veterans impacted by toxic exposures both at home and overseas. This issue requires both our attention, and our action, to ensure we accelerate the process of identifying those affected, provide treatment and care options to those service members, and expand research and solutions-based outcomes for care and prevention.
Hazards present on or near domestic military bases and communities such as Fort McClellan, Alabama, and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, have also caused great risks to our troops and their families. The full extent of these is unknown, but more problems have come to light as research becomes more voluminous and veterans present more health conditions.
For a veteran to secure health benefits and compensation from the federal government, it must be proven under the law that these conditions were caused by their service. It can take decades to successfully change the law, and the American veteran population is a small fraction of the nation's population. That's why rallies such as Operation Stand Together are so important.
Some members of Congress have introduced much-needed legislation that would create (and, in some cases, has created) health registries and studies. However, it doesn't get the job done: We need a comprehensive package of legislation that mandates the needed research, funding and support for veterans who need health care and/or financial compensation as a result of their illnesses.
We don't need members of Congress giving speeches and introducing bills that become desk piles in Washington. We need meaningful action, and we need that action now.
Millions of veterans swore an oath to defend the Constitution, and millions deployed to fight our nation's wars. They should not have to come home and fight their own country to acquire the support they need when they take off the uniform; that is not what they signed up for.
These men and women did their duty, and now it is the nation's duty to fulfill President Lincoln's charge "to care for him who shall have borne the battle." The battle against toxic exposure is one in which we will continue to fight.
Erin Brockovich and Christopher Neiweem
Photo Credit: Courtesy photos
Erin Brockovich is a consumer advocate, environmental activist and proud military mom. Christopher Neiweem is an Iraq War veteran who was exposed to burn pits during his 2003 deployment. He is the director of the national veterans organization VetsFirst, a program of the United Spinal Association.