The frustration of disabled veterans suffering from illnesses associated with exposure to toxic chemicals in Iraq reached its zenith in the recent controversy over the government’s failure to timely disclose the nature of the toxic exposure. In May 2015 the NY Times reported on the disclosure of information that shed light on the mystery of what caused so many veterans to become ill after an encounter with barrels of chemicals at Camp Taji, Iraq. Although the disclosure is a step in the right direction, the government’s delays and stonewalling only serve to reinforce the perception of veterans that the government views them as expendable.
By way of background, the NY Times has been reporting on the plight of veterans exposed at Camp Taji, which was a former Iraqi Republican Guard storage facility. None of the at-risk veterans have been enrolled in long-term health monitoring, and the Under Secretary for the Army only recently as of March 2015 admitted to wrongdoing with respect to these veterans. The Under Secretary finally acknowledged that the military had not followed proper procedures in caring for its personnel who were exposed to these chemicals.
The government first attributed the exposure illnesses to sarin nerve agent, but then the government changed positions to say the chemicals were mere pesticides. The government also claimed that the field tests were unreliable. So what was actually in those containers at Camp Taji? The recently declassified report stated that the chemicals were benzenamine 3,4 dimethyl, which is an organic industrial compound. By the government’s own admission it is a carcinogen and poisonous.
Frustrated veterans have been trying for more than a decade to understand what actually made them sick. The efforts of these disabled veterans have been met with a less-than-transparent response by the federal agency. But whenever veterans sought information from the government they were met with the dismissive, “Can’t help you; it’s classified.” This has fueled anger in the sense that the government knew, but did not tell the sick veterans.
The government’s track record of stonewalling on this issue, as well as the Agent Orange issue, illustrates the broader problem in this controversy between individual veterans and the U.S. government. In essence, the government’s interest in secrecy outweighs veterans interest in obtaining proper healthcare.
Veterans are increasingly burdened by the thought that their personal lives and health are subordinated to the government’s interest in secrecy. As a veterans disability lawyer, I have seen countless cases of veterans who feel that their ability to prove their VA appeals is hindered by the government’s withholding of crucial information. For example, the VA denied benefits to one of our clients who suffers from an Agent Orange illness. Although the veteran did not have official in-country service, he took a commercial flight to Saigon en route to Thailand. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) keeps a record of travel orders and my client repeatedly asked VA to get his travel order records which is required to qualify for benefits and would prove his in-country stop in Saigon. The VA ignored the request, and didn’t get his records. This resulted in an unfair denial that had to be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Although we were successful in getting his case overturned on appeal, the VA’s failure to obtain records that were in federal custody drastically delayed the resolution of his claim for years. This veteran’s case represents another example of the government retaining information that would otherwise help veterans in winning their claims for VA benefits.
Also on the rise is the sentiment of disillusionment with the whole U.S. military enterprise. Their expectation that the military and the VA would take care of them is, for many, turning out to be a false promise.
Disabled veterans look around and see that the patriotism that may have motivated their enlistment is based on an ethos that is fast disappearing. Other veterans I have represented in VA appeals are frustrated by the total lack of concern the VA exhibits for the plight of severely disabled or homeless veterans–veterans whose VA appeals languish for a decade or more. For a veteran about to be evicted, waiting 4-5 years for his VA appeal to resolve is a guarantee of 4-5 years of homelessness.
Many veterans lament that in reality, the military involvement in Southwest Asia is really about oil. The reference to industrial interests being at the root of America’s military establishment harkens back to the words of President Eisenhower when he left office on January 17, 1961. He warned the country of the potential influence of the “military industrial complex.” He admonished Americans to guard against the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Assume for the sake of discussion that President Eisenhower’s fear regarding the military-industrial complex has been realized. When the interests of individual veterans are subjugated to more powerful industrial or governmental interests, it is no wonder that veterans feel that they are expendable.
Regardless of the underlying foreign policy objectives of the U.S. government, veterans largely view themselves as the classic underdogs against giant government and industrial interests. Thus, it’s time that the government ceases from elevating its interests over those of our veterans who sacrificed their long-term health to serve this country’s foreign policy objectives.