Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) works to meet the needs of the veterans it serves through a wide range of initiatives, from legislative work to networking and job readiness programs. The organization keeps its finger on the pulse of veterans’ changing needs and continuously develops new programs to ensure they continue to receive the support they need. In recent years, one issue that has caused alarm is the rising number of cancer deaths among veterans.
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a separate organization that supports families after the loss of a service member, has reported a 51-percent increase in the number of illness- or cancer-related deaths among service members and veterans over the past five years.
By 2020, TAPS predicts that cancer will become the primary cause of death among veterans and service members. This uptick in cancer-related deaths was sudden, and TAPS has noticed that it can sometimes affect entire units. In some cases, it appeared as though the cancer was linked to battle conditions, such as the use of uranium in armored suits.
Alarming Preliminary Data on the Health of Exposed Veterans
This question has become more relevant as certain cancers that are rare in the general population, especially among younger people, have become more prevalent among young service members. Many military families contacted TAPS with stories involving formerly healthy people suddenly presenting with rare, Stage 4 cancers. However, much of this data is anecdotal, because Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) systems are not adept at tracking trends. Some self-reporting databases exist, but this information is far from complete.
TAPS has joined forces with other military organizations to look more fully into this problem, which started with a discussion panel entitled Understanding Toxic Exposure in the Military. These exposures range from contaminated water to lead in military housing. The Department of Defense is now building a database called the Individual Long Exposure Record to keep track of these incidents. These records will be available to government researchers and VA physicians. Service members can access their own records by filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Veterans groups are working to make it easier for service members, veterans, and their families to access these records.
WWP Forms TEAM to Help Tackle the Issue of Toxic Exposures
One of the key partner organizations working with TAPS on this problem is WWP. The resulting coalition is called Toxic Exposures in the American Military (TEAM) and includes several other organizations, such as Veteran Warriors Inc., Vietnam Veterans of America, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Together, the coalition hopes to gather more data about toxic exposures in recent wars and the associated risks to service members. The group hopes this information will help determine strategies to reduce the occurrence of disease. In addition, TEAM will work with Congress to create more ways to help veterans access high-quality healthcare.
The formation of TEAM comes shortly after the announcement that the Department of Justice would not appeal a federal ruling awarding presumptive disability benefit status to 90,000 Vietnam veterans who served on ships. Known as “blue water” veterans, these individuals were exposed to cancer-causing defoliants in Vietnam, but were consistently denied claims at the VA due to lack of concrete evidence about the carcinogen.
Many veterans’ groups saw this legal battle as a precursor to a coming fight for benefits for veterans who served near burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. Linking a veteran’s illness to a particular burn pit has proven difficult, given the range of items burned in these open-air pits. However, the ruling in favor of the blue water veterans may suggest that burn pit exposure will be taken seriously in the future.
Formulating a Strategic Push for New Legislation
Currently, the VA Burn Pit Registry has about 165,000 enrollees. This registry tracks illnesses potentially related to smoke inhalation around the pits. However, experts believe many more people were exposed to enough smoke to suffer health consequences. Already, legislation is being considered to deal with the issue. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have already suggested mandating the inclusion of burn pit exposure in the medical records of service members. However, TEAM will likely push for much more than this, including tracking different exposures, such as depleted uranium in ammunition and water contamination on military bases.
Congress has already begun paying attention to cases of cancer possibly caused by military exposure. In recent months, several Congresspersons have brought up the issue of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in military firefighting foam. These substances are known to cause cancer. Last year, the Department of Defense identified 126 different military installations where PFAS leaked into the groundwater.
Even before the creation of TEAM, WWP was already working with TAPS, Burn Pits 360, and the American Legion on similar issues. The work they have already accomplished will help refine TEAM’s approach and priorities in the coming months and years. TEAM will meet regularly this year to coordinate its collective position and determine how to tackle the issue of toxic exposures in the military most effectively.