For Lauren Price, a Navy veteran who lives in New Port Richey, the story is all too familiar.
This summer, the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security released previously classified documents that found service members stationed at an air base in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005 were exposed to multiple toxic hazards, including toxins from burn pit smoke.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny that illnesses these veterans developed, such as cancer, were service-connected, calling for more research needed to find a link.
“At this point in time, the secretary, in order to put forward a presumption, would need to have scientific support, and that is not there at this time,” said Patricia R. Hastings, chief consultant of the VA’s Post Deployment Health Services, at a hearing last week.
Price didn’t serve at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base. But while completing convoy missions for 13 months in Iraq around 2007, she was exposed to burn pit toxins, she said, and her body continues to struggle while the VA continues to deny care to veterans like herself.
“They’re still saying, no causal link,” Price said.
Called this generation’s Agent Orange by advocates and congressmen alike, the issue of granting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans presumptive care by the VA for long-term and often fatal illnesses developed after exposure to toxins in service continues to stall.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who reiterated his commitment to resolving this issue when re-elected this month, echoed sentiments from the National Security subcommittee on the need for more immediate action from the VA.
“It is disappointing to see the VA take such a misguided position on this important issue,” he said in a statement. “These veterans have been exposed to toxins, which are known to be linked to the development of rare and serious illnesses.”
“These heroes, including those stationed at K2 (Karshi-Khanabad Air Base), cannot afford to wait for bureaucratic delays. They need medical care now,” he added.
Getting the VA to grant presumptive care for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange while in service took years and litigation, Price said.
“We don’t have 40 years to fight the VA in court,” she said.
Price said she deals with chloracne, such as cysts and black spots on her skin, about 35 percent lung function and memory loss due to brain lesions as a result of the toxins she came into contact with during her service.
Through her organization, Veteran Warriors Inc., she’s helped veterans across the country with similar or worse conditions seek affordable medical care they say they cannot find at the VA.
In 2014, the VA created an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which allows veterans and service members to share their exposures and health concerns through a questionnaire.
Between June 2014 and June 2020, there were 209,097 participants, including 12,116 from Florida.
The VA website says that “at this time, research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”
Price said she’s setting her sights on legislation that can resolve the issue directly. She hopes to work with advocates and legislators next year on a bill that would take away the VA’s authority to determine which cases are presumptive, she said.
“If you keep giving them the authority to determine what’s presumptive, they’re going to keep telling you, sure we’ll give you one or two diseases or whatever, and then you literally have to drag them through court for two decades,” she said.