Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., intends to introduce legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would establish a federal organization for studying illnesses caused by toxic combat wounds and developing treatments for veterans suffering from such conditions, reported the Military Times. Walz says the Department of Veterans Affairs would manage the organization that he plans to name the Center for Excellence for Toxic Combat Wounds. Currently, the VA funds three medical facilities, called War-Related Illness and Injury Study Centers, that treat veterans suffering deployment-related physical ailments.
According to the Boston University Medical Center, around 250,000 veterans of the first Gulf War returned home with a debilitating condition caused by prolonged exposure to pesticides and other synthetic toxins. The condition, called Gulf War Illness, damages the immune and nervous systems, and reduces the amount of gray and white matter in the brain.
Another 2.6 million American soldiers were exposed to the caustic herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, reported Pro Publica. The VA has granted extended medical benefits to approximately 650,000 of these individuals since 2002.
In a recent meeting of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Walz, an Army National Guard veteran, advocated for his legislation and touched on the effect toxins like Agent Orange have had on U.S. servicemembers.
"Vietnam veterans are concerned about genetic defects caused by Agent Orange," Walz said. "There's the burn pits, there's depleted uranium. Shame on us for not learning. Every generation is having to come back and fight for all these things."
The VA's existing facilities diagnose, treat and study veterans suffering from illnesses brought on by toxic wounds. However, Walz believes the agency must combine and streamline these disparate centers to better combat the issue of deployment-related illnesses.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, expressed support for Walz's plan. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, assistant deputy undersecretary for health, safety and quality for the Veterans Health Administration, attended the meeting and also relayed support for such a measure.
"No matter what we call it, it's going to have to be an entity that coordinates what we are doing with Defense, with Health and Human Services and with Congress," she said. "I think that would be great."
This would be the second bill related to toxic combat wounds sponsored by Walz. The legislator, in September 2014, introduced the Veterans' Toxic Wounds Research Act, which called for the VA to establish a national database of veterans exposed to toxins during deployment. That bill is still under review in the House.