Our toxic exposure case for Oregon National Guard vets exposed to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali facility in Iraq continues. The case is against Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) and its various offshoots. Background: Link to NBC Nightly News story and reflections on the case here. Earlier updates on the case here.
Meantime, worth noting is that Senator Ron Wyden’s sent a letter today to Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the matter. Here is a pdf copy- Qarmat Ali vets letter fr Sen Wyden.
I am appreciative that Senator Wyden continues pushing on these issues. As well, Senator Merkley, Rep. Schrader, and Oregon Sen. Shields have carried this issue, too. Some of this is about good constituent service, I suppose.
But in talking to Sen. Wyden, Sen. Merkley, Oregon Sen. Shields and their staff members, I know that this is about more than simply providing service to voters. We all agree that we owe our vets better. To my way of thinking, this includes that KBR face its day of reckoning.
To all of our leaders who continue advocating for our soldiers-I am sure you know from your own conversations that our Qarmat Ali vets deeply appreciate your continuing efforts. One of our vets’ father served in Vietnam. He quietly shared with me his appreciation that a senator or a busy lawyer would come to the aid of his son. As he explained it, usually soldiers think that they can only rely on other soldiers. I thanked him for his kind words and simply said that it was the very least we could do.
In Portland last week, Senator Wyden held a press conference to announce his support for expanding VA benefits for soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq. This arguably sounds bland. It is not.
It’s important for a few reasons. Let’s talk first about history. Senator Wyden and I are a few years apart, but I believe that we both share the haunting memories of our Vietnam era vets exposed to Agent Orange. That was the impetus for me in joining this fight. I imagine it plays on Senator Wyden, as well. We owe our soldiers many debts. It is good that Senator Wyden sees the world this way and has committed to the fight.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always agree with Senator Wyden. But that is little more than a footnote. I share his sense of mission and want to thank him for his commitment to these issues.
And that brings me to the other reasons why this is important. Senator Wyden’s commitment to these issues provides profound comfort to our injured vets. At one point during the press conference, Senator Wyden opened the mic to any of the sick vets who wanted to comment. A soldier, Sgt. (retired) Matt Hadley, moved toward the mic. He hesitated briefly–Matt is a soldier and not the kind of guy you would find hugging a mic at a press conference. He developed asthma and was forced to retire from the Oregon National Guard.
So as Matt moved to the podium, I wondered what he would say and do. He paused and then called out Senator Wyden by name. He delivered the most heartfelt thanks that anyone could imagine. I would have remembered it and reported it word-for-word, except that I was busy losing the struggle to remain dry-eyed. Sgt. Hadley gave voice to many in that brief moment, and what I heard was that our vets were thankful that they don’t fight alone.
The last reason why all of this is important is that Senator Wyden is taking up the mantle of leadership on these issues. Senator Wyden has been supportive of the vets throughout, but he has deferred to his colleagues, Senators Dorgan and Bayh. Both are leaving the senate. So Senator Wyden’s leadership on this issue will be important.
All of this takes place as we move forward in the legal fight against KBR. Our soldiers protected KBR at the tainted Qarmat Ali site. And now they face a lifetime of health problems. As we look at these problems going forward, I’m struck by the contrast. Our soldiers did their jobs at Qarmat Ali. They didn’t complain about putting themselves on the line to protect KBR assets and personnel. And now that they are sick, I can’t help but grow angry at KBR’s refusal to cover our soldiers’ backs.
I guess that’s why God invented juries and why I have a job.
Senator Byron Dorgan (D. N.D.) announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election. I’ve never been to North Dakota, and I had only passing awareness of Senator Dorgan until this summer. That changed as a result of my work on behalf of Oregon National Guard soldiers exposed to sodium dichromate in Iraq.
Senator Dorgan has chaired the Democratic Policy Committee. In that role, he has held hearings on Army and Army National Guard soldiers’ exposures to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali facility. Those hearings have been instrumental in exposing wrongdoing by KBR and others.
Senator Dorgan has proved himself a friend of our soldiers and their families. This is not simple bumper sticker “support our troops,” stuff. In comments made at the hearing in August 2009, Senator Dorgan made it clear that he is motivated by the simple proposition that we owe our vets more than pats on the back.
So I read this news with a heavy heart. Those of us who dare to challenge KBR for their misconduct have taken on a big and powerful foe. As every guy knows, when you’re in a barroom brawl, there’s nothing more welcome than a friend by your side. Thanks Senator Dorgan for your great work. We’ll miss you as we push forward.