Tuesday, December 1, 2009. Chaos and violence continue, the Iraq Inquiry in London continues with witnesses stating the US government placed too much faith in Iraqi exiles, the birth defects among Iraqi children continue, and more.
Today in London, the Iraq Inquiry continued. Last Tuesday was when the public hearings began. Mary Dejevsky (Independent of London) offers this evaulation of the Inquiry thus far, "The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is a week old and even at this very early stage it appears that its chief victim could be Tony Blair, the man who has so successfully prevented the mud sticking to him hitherto. The questioning may have been gentle, but one after another, the top civil servants of the time have plunged the knife in to the former prime minister, sometimes brutally, sometimes with a surgeon's finesse. Whenever the question of responsibility for the war arose, they were clear that it was not theirs. Which is the constitutional truth. Their duty as civil servants is to execute the policies of the elected government, not, for all the fun and games of Yes, Minister, to thwart them." Sian Ruddick (Great Britain's Socialist Worker) also weighs in, "Many people feared that the Iraq inquiry, which opened last week, was going to be a whitewash. While that is still a strong possibility, the inquiry's first week has revealed the continuing crisis in the establishment over the invasion in March 2003."
Today the committee heard from Peter Ricketts (Political Director of the UK Foreign Office Sept. 2001 through July 2003) and Edward Chaplin (British Ambassador to Jordan May 2000 to April 2002, Director for Middle East and North Africa April 2002 to Sepember 2003). The session opened with Chair John Chilcot offering a "good morning everyone" before noting there were not "as many in the 'everyone' as there have been on previous days, but you are very welcome." The witnesses are not put under oath before they offer their testimony; however, after the transcripts have been typed up and corrected, they are "asked to sign a transcript of their evidence to the effect that the evidence they have given is truthful, fair and accurate." Chair Chilcot went over the particulars with a little more emphasis today and the hearing also got to the point a little more quickly today.
Committee Member Martin Gilbert: My first question is from the perspective of the Foreign Office, from your perspective, when did it become apparent that the United States was contemplating a more active approach to regime change in Iraq than during the first years of the Bush administration, during the first year?
Peter Ricketts repeated what he had said last week about it being policy Bully Boy Bush being installed in the White House by the Supreme Court -- he again pointed to an article Condi Rice wrote for the journal Foreign Affairs calling on regime change. The way Ricketts continuously references this article by Condi Rice, you'd think it was all about Iraq. It's not. "Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest" was in the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs (house organ of the Council on, of and for Foreign Relations). She uses a sizable amount of space blaming Bill Clinton for everything -- including for deploying, in her opinion, too many miltiary personnel overseas (yes, it is laughable) and claiming that the next president will have to clean up after Clinton (yes, it is laughable). She mentions Saddam in passing in terms of 1990s action and then, much later in the paper, she writes:
As history marches toward markets and democracy, some states have been left by the side of the road. Iraq is the prototype. Saddam Hussein's regime is isolated, his conventional military power has been severely weakened, his people live in poverty and terror, and he has no useful place in international politics. He is therefore determined to develop WMD. Nothing will change until Saddam is gone, so the United States must mobilize whatever resources it can, including support from his opposition, to remove him.
She's much more concerned with Russia (which was her area of expertise -- although I never saw any expertise in any of her statements on that country), China and North Korea. The way Ricketts and others have referenced this lengthy article one could easily walk away with the impression that Iraq was her focus in the paper. That is simply incorrect. Her call for regime change in Iraq (the section quoted above) is 83 words -- 83 word out of over 6,596 words in the essay. And, repeating, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and other areas receive far more attention in the paper. I'm not saying Rice didn't want regime change in Iraq, she clearly advocated for it. Far into her paper. It would be interesting to know what other things she advocated for in that paper the British government was willing to sign off on.
Interestingly for someone who keeps name dropping Rice and referencing her paper, Ricketts never explains -- nor is he asked -- why either the US or the UK governments were insisting they believed Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction? In Rice's paper -- from 2000, only two years prior -- she's asserting Hussein is "determined to develop WMD." When did he do that? In two years time, how did he manage that? Iraq had no WMD -- NONE -- but it's interesting that the official position in 2000 was that he was "determined" to create some and two years later -- while Iraq is still under sanctions and still has no-fly zones and is heavily monitored by many Western countries -- the word Bush and Blair's administrations put out is that Iraq has WMD. Ricketts the one who can't shut up about Condi's article. So maybe he should have been asked when he believed Iraq developed WMD and why he believed that? That really is more to the point or does he just intend to hide behind Condi's skirts for the entire inquiry? But would it even matter if the question were asked? Follow this exchange from today, note the very clear question and try to find where in Ricketts' response he answers the question.
Commitee Member Martin Gilbert: How do you account for the scepticism, the general scepticism of the British public, that Saddam constituted a serious danger to the region.
Peter Ricketts: We had spent the previous months concentrating on the threat from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. We had been through the military intervention in Afghanistan and we were still, at that stage, involved in the aftermath of that, an international security force and the civilian effort in Afghanistan. There was a lot of public attention on Al-Qaeda and the threat from Afghanistan. As we have discussed in previous evidence sessions, we had, in Whitehall, been seriously concerned about the threat from weapons of mass destruction and the risk that they would be reconstituted as the sanctions regime broke down and Saddam got access to more moeny, and it had been a consistent worry. 9/11 and the evidence of terrorist interest in weapons of mass destruction was a further boost. It was a very strong strand in the Prime Minister's thinking and the Foreign Secretary's thinking, but it hadn't been a big feature of public presentation of the counter-terrorism strategy. Therefore, as we focused harder on Iraq, as that was clearly rising up the US political agenda, it was important that we should get out to the public more information about what we saw as the threat from Saddam, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
That was Ricketts' full response. I didn't leave out a word. Did he answer the question? No, not really. Unless the answer is: "We worked real hard to sell the war on Afghanistan and then had to scramble after that to sell the war on Iraq -- and since we were already tired from selling one war, we didn't have it in us to be convincing and the public caught on."
Pressed by Committee Member Martin Gilbert, Ricketts admitted that the Foreign Office was involved in planning "just after the Crawford meeting" with the Ministry of Defence. Let's jump in at his but. And see if you can catch Peter Ricketts lying.
Peter Ricketts: We didn't discuss military planning as such. We discussed the implications of military planning for other departments' activities, and the key initial work that I was involved in was trying to define an end-state for any miltiary action we took. We had never supported the idea simply of regime change, that was not our proposal, but to say disarming Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction was not adequate either, and so we developed some ideas on what an end-state should be, the sort of Iraq that we would want to see, law-abiding, sovereign, with territorial integrity, not posing a threat to its neighbours, respecting its obligations on weapons of mass destruction and so on. We worked up in that group an end-state which was one of the political implications of any military plan.
Ricketts is such a liar. He says that "we" "never supported the idea simply of regime change." He creates the impression that this wasn't the UK goal but it was the UK goal and it was the goal post-Crawford (which is when Tony Blair begins using the phrase in speeches -- speeches echoing the Blair Doctrine he outlined in his 1999 speech). He's being asked about that and he's lying. Gilbert persists and forces this response out of Ricketts: "It is hard to imagine that an Iraq of that kind was possible with Saddam Hussein in charge, and if -- because the presumption of this work was that in due course there would be a miltiary operation." Yes, it is hard to imagine that UK was planning for anything other than regime change. Ricketts then attempts to backtrack insisting that would only be the outcome -- regime change would be the outcome -- if there was military action. At which point, Edward Chaplin jumps in.
Edward Chaplin: Could I add one point? There was also the possibility, perhaps you have touched on already, that under pressure, including military pressure, build-up, Saddam Hussein would be persuaded by other Arab heads of government to step down and go into exile; in other words, we would achieve a change in the regime's policies without military action.
And forcing someone into exile? That's regime change. Or failed regime change if you want to consider the CIA-backed attempt to force Hugo Chavez into exile in 2002. On the issue of countries neighboring Iraq and how they were sounded out, Edward Chaplin offered:
Obviously there were very frequent conversations with leaders in the Arab world, particularly those likely to be most affected. I already mentioned conversations I had when I was ambassador in Jordan. There were real fears about the impact of military action in Iraq articulated very clearly by the King of Jordan and others, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. In terms of the impact it would have on the stability of the Middle East, and the impact it would have on the peace process -- the double standards I have indicated -- and, indeed, the impact it would have on the wider campaign against terrorism post-9/11. So they were flagging those up. What we were doing was the messages we were passing to all these governments, particularly those with any influence in Baghdad, was, "We hear all that and we can see it very clearly, as clearly as you can, but this is a very serious problem and it has to be resolved. We have been at this for 11/12 years, we cannot go on, particularly after 9/11, without resolving this threat." Therefore, our hope was that they would add their own actions and pressure through private or public means, to persaude the Iraqi regime to start cooperating seriously with the UN, and we assured them that, if they did that, then, you know, we would react accordingly. We were not looking for an excuse to take military action, far from it. We did want this problem resolved and that was as much, we thought, in their interest as ours. Of course, their perception of the threat, the WMD threat, was not as serious as ours, with the one exception perhaps of Iran, the neighbour that had suffered quite severely from the actual use of WMD, I have to say.
Mark Stone (Sky News) feels that today offered "a developing narrative" which he sums up as:
In the run-up to war -- those key months between 9/11 (when the Bush Administration's grumblings about Iraq turned to more distinct drum-beats) and the invasion in March 2003 -- the UK was determined to lead America down the 'UN route'.
All the witnesses have cited numerous occasions when Tony Blair, with the help of his diplomats and ambassadors, pushed an increasingly disinterested American Administration back to the UN table.
If that is the narrative, the UK push for the UN ended with 1441 (authorization for weapons inspectors to return to Iraq) -- which was made obvious by Jeremy Greenstock's testimony last week or have we all forgotten that?
Michael Savage (Independent of London) emphasizes, "Despite declarations that Britain would lead an 'exemplary' operation to bring back normality to the area around Basra, in the south of the country, the Chilcot Iraq inquiry heard that the demands of the task soon outstripped the money provided by the Government." Ruth Barnett (Sky News -- link has text and video) emphasizes the testimony by Chaplin that the US had "touching faith": "The US administration had 'toughing faith that once Iraq had been liberated from Saddam Hussein . . . there would be dancing in the streets,' Mr Chaplain said. 'We tried to point out that was estremely optimistic'." Chaplain returned to that 'touching faith' in another response which we'll note in full:
Edward Chaplin: I think we were all very concerned at the lack of preparations in terms of what we could see happening in Washing. What was happening there was that the rather detailed work that had already been done by the State Department over many months, didn't seem to be finding its way into the policy-making, the preparation for the aftermath, which was all in the hands of the Pentagon. The Pentagon took the decision to set up this organisation ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance], and appoint an ex-General to be in charge of it. But there was a certain disregard -- an unwillingness, I think, to use the State Department expertise to devise a policy and -- or indeed to attach some of the experts who actually knew a lot about the region and spoke the language and so on. Again, this goes back to what I was saying earlier about a touching belief that we shouldn't worry so much about the aftermath because it was all going to be sweetness and light.
But where could this 'touching faith' have come from?
Edward Chaplin: I think one of the problems that the Amreicans had this view was that they relied heavily on what they were hearing from different opposition groups, and these were the opposition groups outside Iraq. We were always a great deal more sceptical about what they were saying and what they were claiming would happen in the aftermath of an invasion, but I think some Americans were hearing some very happy talk from the likes of Mr [Ahmed] Chalabi that, once Saddam Hussein had gone, they didn't need to worry, everything would be fine, the subtext being particularly if they handed over power to someone like Mr Chalabi. We were always very firmly of the view and expressed this to everyone including the Americans, but also in the region, that we held no particular candle for any opposition, any exiled group. We had a view that they carried actually very little credibility where it mattered in Iraq.
Wait a minute. The British government thought that? Then why has the press never thought it? Why has the US press -- in total -- refused to question the installing of exiles? The role of the press is supposed to be a skeptical one. So why is it that all these exiles got installed and the press didn't question it? No fiery editorials from the New York Times, for example. It was always basic. It's popped up in many snapshots. A group of people who flee the country while you live there and suffer aren't seen as 'heroes' or 'special' or 'leaders' when they strut back in with foreign invaders. Doesn't work that way. Never has historically. But the press was somehow blind to that. It's a strange sort of blind spot -- one that the British government didn't have. The press had and continues to have that blind spot because they're not about what's right or what's fair. The press long ago enlisted to sell this illegal war. In the US, they embedded with the illegal war while dickering over a few details. The illegal war? Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian) explains, "In the event of military action, Ricketts told the inquiry, Lord Boyce, then chief of the defence staff, needed the agreement of the government's law officers. That was an 'absolute requirement', said Ricketts. On 7 March 2003, less than a fortnight before the invasion, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, advised that British commanders could be arraigned before the international criminal court if they joined the US-led invasion." On the legality issue, Johan Steyn's "Invading Iraq was not just a disaster: it was illegal" (Financial Times of London) went up last night and advocates for the inquiry to release an interim report issuing a finding "on the legality of the Iraq war". Steyn writes, "I would expect the inquiry to conclude -- in agreement with Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations -- that in the absence of a second UN resolution authorising invasion, it was illegal."
Meanwhile Padraic Flanagan (Daily Express) reports Tony Blair is insisting he's innocent and declaring he made the right decision and "if you can't stand the heat, don't come into the kitchen." What kitchen would that be, Tony, and what did you cook? It's a question worth asking as Suadad al-Salhy, Mohammed Abbas, Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul (Reuters) report on the increase in birth defects and cancer in Iraqi infants. Dr. Jawad al-Ali tells the news agency, "We have seen new kinds of cancer that were not recorded in Iraq before war in 2003, types of fibrous (soft tissue) cancer and bone cancer. These refer clearly to radiation as a cause." This is only the latest in a series of recent reports on the issue. In October, Lisa Holland (Sky News via Information Clearing House) reported on the damage being done to Iraqis and future generations due to toxic and deadly weapons foreign forces (which would include the US) have used (and continue to) in Iraq:
An Iraqi doctor has told Sky News the number of babies born with deformities in the heavily-bombed area of Fallujah is still on the increase.
Fifteen months ago a Sky News investigation revealed growing numbers of children being born with defects in Fallujah.
Concerns were that the rise in deformities may have been linked to the use of chemical weapons by US forces.
We recently returned to find out the current situation and what has happened to some of the children we featured.
In May last year we told the story of a three-year-old girl called Fatima Ahmed who was born with two heads.
When we filmed her she seemed like a listless bundle - she lay there barely able to breathe and unable to move.
Even now and having seen the pictures many times since I still feel shocked and saddened when I look at her.
But the prognosis for Fatima never looked good and, as feared, she never made it to her fourth birthday.
Her mother Shukriya told us about the night her daughter died.
Wiping away her tears, Shukriya said she had put her daughter to bed as normal one night but woke with the dreadful sense that something was wrong.
She told us she felt it was her daughter's moment to die, but of course that does not make the pain any easier.
In November, Dennis Campbell (Guardian) and Larry Johnson (Seattle PostGlobe) reported on the issue. Also last month, Martin Chulov (Guardian) wrote about it and, November 17th, spoke with Free Speech Radio News about the issue.
Dorian Merina: As US military attention shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the effects of six years of warfare are emerging. Falluja, in central Iraq, was the site of some of the most intense fighting, including two battles in 2004, in which the US used heavy munitions. Now, five years later, a sharp rise in birthd efects in the area has doctors and residencts concerned. We're joined by Martin Chulov, Iraqi correspondent for the Guardian. His article on the rise in birth defects in Falluja came out over the weekend. FSRN spoke to him earlier today by mobile phone in Baghdad. Martin Chulov, welcome to Free Speech Radio News.
Martin Chulov: Thank you, it's nice to be with you.
Dorian Merina: You visited a local hospital in Falluja, what did you see?
Martin Chulov: We were there over a three week period, looking at neonatal wards and spending time with pediatricians and obstetricians and what we did see for ourselves is a very obvious sign of-of a spike in congenital defects, in birth deformities and all sorts of other abnormalities in Falluja's newborn. From babies of only a few hours old to babies of six months old. There were numerous cases of babies being brought in with -- all born with serious birth defects.
Dorian Merina: And in 2004, the US marines and infantry engaged in heavy fighting in the area. The US has confirmed that it used heavy munitions including the controversial white phosphorus. Let's start with that. What is white phosphorus and how is it used?
Martin Chulov: White phosphorus is a -- is basically an illumination round that detonates maybe 70, 80 meters above the ground and scatters out across a wide area. It's an anti-personnel weapon as well. It's extremely hot to touch and it will burn flesh for many minutes afterwards. It's made of a phosphorus compound. It-it is used in urban warfare and it is used in battlefields around the world. It's highly controversial because of the impact it does have on a broad area of the battlefield. And it is sworn by by the American army and by the Israeli army who used it in Gaza as recently as January.
Dorian Merina: And it was used there in Falluja during the battles. You spoke with a neurosurgeon there named Dr. Abdul Wahid Salah. What did he tell you?
Martin Chulov: He said that he'd been working in neurology in Falluja for 12 years and over the last twelve months -- more specifically, I should say, the last six months, he's seen a dramatic spike in neurology defects in newborn babies. Mainly neuro-tube defects which are a debilitating, congenital defects at birth -- swollen head, uh, limited use of the lower limbs in babies, and they need substantial corrective surgery to lead anything like a normal life. And there are all sorts of accompanying ailments with this defect as well. The main one being cardiac deficiencies. The neurologist said he's been seeing them on a daily basis for the last six months now and there are many others who haven't been disagnosed because home births are still quite popular in Falluja which is a very impoverished area five years after the two big battles that you speak about.
Dorian Merina: Now do they have the resources there -- do health workers have the resources there to deal with this?
Martin Chulov: They certainly have the skill set because they've been working on these cases for so long now and so frequently. But there's only one senior neurologist at Falluja Hospital, there's not one obstetrician, there's a pediatrician, there's a couple of specialist doctors who do help out. But they are doing it alone and they say that there's no other hospital in the world which would have to deal with such a large number of debilitating defects in newborns. It's something that they're not geared up for. They're doing as best as they can
Dorian Merina: Iraqi and British officials have petitioned the UN General Assembly to ask for an investigation into birth defects. So what is the next step here?
Martin Chulov: I think the next step is that scientists have to play a role. And there's limited means at the moment for Iraqis to take things further. The international community has been reluctant to intervene or to even come to Iraq -- for obvious reasons. It has a very unstable place and Falluja was ground zero for a lot of the insurgency for all throughout 2004, '05, '06 and most of '07 as well so there's an understandable reluctance of international donors or international scientists or international health officials to come here. I think we've reached that rubcion now where there needs to be some kind of a study, some kind of an analysis into what is going on and why.
Again, Tony Blair, which kitchen and what was being cooked? And will you be sending Nicholas, Kathryn, Leo or Euan to live in Falluja. Hey, Leo's only 9. Children that age adapt so very quickly. Want to send him to the toxic cess poll you've cooked up in Iraq? No, I'm not at all surprised. Nor should Leo or any child have to go there -- regardless of War Crimes carried out by their parents. It's not just the toxic dump the US created at the Balad base, they've poisoned a huge portion of the country.
In other reported violence . . .
Mohammed Al Dulaimy (McClatchy Newspapers) reports a Baghdad sticky bombing which claimed 1 life and left another person injured and a Mosul grenade attack which resulted in two people being wounded. Reuters reports on Monday's violence: a Hawija hand grenade wounded eleven people.
Li Zianzhi (Xinhua) reports attacks of Garma checkpoints today which left five security forces injured and notes, "The attacks targeted checkpoints manned by Iraqi police and paramilitary members of the Awakening Council groups in the town of Garma near the city of Fallujah, some 50 km west of Baghdad, the source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity." Mohammed Al Dulaimy (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 3 people shot dead in a Baghdad currency exchange office. Reuters reports on Monday's violence: 1 man shot dead in Rabia and three others wounded (it was an attack on Yazidis -- Reuters says the assailants were also Yazidis) and 1 Iraqi army Col shot dead in Kirkuk.
Turning to the latest news on Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist. al-Zeidi came to international fame and applause when he screamed "You lie!" during Barack Obama's speech -- oh wait, scream "You lie!" and be seen as a scourge. Toss shoes at George W. Bush and Nouri al-Maliki and become an international hero. Well today Muntadhar and his family were far from a family of peace. Al Jazeera reports the shoe tosser gave a press conference in Paris and, during it, a man threw a shoe at al-Zeidi and hollered, "Here's another shoe for you." They also report, "Al-Zeidi's brother, Maithan, chased the attacker in the audience and pelted him with a shoe as he left the room." As someone who rightly objected to Nouri's dogs being sicked on al-Zeidi (objected from the start) and called out the brutality al-Zeidi experienced then and after, I find it offensive that his family's response now is to chase down someone and throw things at them. If it's good enough for al-Zeidi to throw shoes, he and his family shouldn't be surprised if people throw shoes at him (the shoe thrown at him today missed, by the way). Sophie Hardach and Andrew Dobbie (Reuters) reports it was "a scuffle" that followed the toss. So if al-Zeidi's brother had supported Nouri, he would have been beating Muntadhar? Frank James (NPR) has posted on the topic and includes raw video. In it, you see the 'scuffle' and then the thrower is led away. As he is being led away, the brother does a cowardly thing, runs up behind him, hits him over the head with a shoe and shouts at him. As he's being led away with both arms held, the brother attacks him with a shoe. What a coward, what a creep. There's no excuse for it and Muntadhar should have called out his brother. In the exchange, you saw all that is wrong with 'politics' in Iraq:
You treated me wrong! So I will do this to you!
I was treated wrong! So I will do this to you!
How dare you do that to me! Even though it's what I did to you!
No one ever takes responsibility and no one ever attempts to heal, they just lash out over and over and pick at the scab that is all their oozing resentments. And that is the government the US installed in Iraq. Muntadhar's an exile and the man who threw today's shoe claims to be an Iraqi exile as well. They carry their grudges as all forced out of a country will. Which is why you don't install them into leadership especially when you're trying to 'heal' a country.
In the United States, Lt Col James C. Gentry was to be buried today. Jason Thomas (Indianapolis Star) reports that the Iraq War veteran died last Wendesday of lung cancer and Thomas explains:
Gentry, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, last spring joined a federal lawsuit filed in December 2008. It accuses Texas-based KBR and several related companies of concealing the risks faced by 136 Indiana National Guard soldiers potentially exposed to a cancer-causing agent, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The suit originally was filed on behalf of 16 Indiana soldiers but has grown to 47 plaintiffs, including the family of a soldier, David Moore, Dubois, Ind., who died of a lung disease in 2008.
Most of the plaintiffs served with a Tell City unit sent to Iraq with the Indiana National Guard's 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry Regiment, based in Jasper. For three months beginning in May 2003, the unit provided security for KBR employees charged with rebuilding the Qarmat Ali water-pumping plant near Basra.
December 22nd Armen Keteyian (CBS Evening News with Katie Couric -- text and video) reported on James Gentry's developing lung cancer after serving at Iraq where he guarded KBR's water plant, "Now CBS News has obtained information that indicates KBR knew about the danger months before the soldiers were ever informed. Depositions from KBR employees detailed concerns about the toxin in one part of the plant as early as May of 2003. And KBR minutes, from a later meeting state 'that 60 percent of the people . . . exhibit symptoms of exposure,' including bloody noses and rashes."
October 21st, US Senator Evan Bayh appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and made the following statements about Gentry and about the need for S 1779 -- The Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act:
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for the invitation to testify today -- and for all you're doing to ensure that the VA has the tools and authority it needs to help our brave men and women who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan nursing the wounds of war.
I am here today to testify about a tragedy that took place in 2003 on the outskirts of Basrah, Iraq.
I'm here on behalf of Lt. Colonel James Gentry and the brave men and women who served under his command in the 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry of the Indiana National Guard.
I spoke with Lt. Col. Gentry by phone last week. He is at his home with his wife, Lou Ann, waging a valiant fight against terminal cancer.
The lieutenant colonel was a healthy man when he left for Iraq. Today, he is fighting for his life.
Tragically, many of his men are facing their own bleak prognoses as a result of their exposure to sodium dichromate -- one of the most lethal carcinogens in existence.
The chemical is used as an anti-corrosive for pipes. It was strewn all over the water treatment facility guarded by the 152nd Infantry. More than 600 soldiers from Indiana, Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina were exposed.
One Indiana Guardsman has already died from lung disease. The Army has classified it a service-related death. Dozens of others have come forward with a range of serious respiratory symptoms.
The DoD Inspector General just launched an investigation into the breakdowns and gaps in our system that allowed this tragic exposure to happen. Neither the Army nor the private contractor KBR performed an environmental risk assessment of the site, so our soldiers were breathing in this chemical and swallowing it for months.
Our country's reliance on military contractors -- and their responsibility to their bottom line vs. our soldiers' safety -- is a topic for another day and another hearing.
Mr. Chairman, today, I would like to tell this committee about S.1779. It is legislation I have written to ensure we provide full and timely medical care to soldiers exposed to hazardous chemicals during wartime military service.
The Health Care for Veterans Exposed to Chemical Hazards Act of 2009 is bipartisan legislation that has been cosponsored by Senators Lugar, Dorgan, Rockefeller, Byrd, Wyden, Merkley and Specter.
My bill is modeled after similar legislation that Congress approved in 1978 following the Agent Orange exposure in the Vietnam conflict.
The bill ensured lifelong VA care for soldiers unwittingly exposed to the cancer-causing herbicide in the jungles of Vietnam.
Some have called toxic industrial hazards the Agent Orange of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.
My legislation would make soldiers eligible for medical examinations, laboratory tests, hospital care and nursing services. It would ensure soldiers receive priority health care at VA facilities. It would recognize a veteran's own report of exposure and inclusion on a Department of Defense registry as sufficient proof to receive medical care, barring evidence to the contrary.
My legislation will help ensure that we provide the best possible care for American soldiers exposed to environmental hazards during the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. At a bare minimum, my bill will ensure compassionate care so families are spared the added grief of going from doctor to doctor in their loved ones' final days, searching for a diagnosis.
The 1978 Agent Orange registry only covered one chemical compound. But my bill is broader. It covers all members of the armed forces who have been exposed to any environmental chemical hazard, not just sodium dichromate. It recognizes a new set of risks that soldiers face today throughout the world.
Senate testimony last year identified at least seven serious instances of potential contamination involving different industrial hazards -- sulfur fires, ionizing radiation, sarin gas, and depleted uranium, to name a few.
S.1779 ensures that veterans who were exposed to these chemicals will be eligible for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care.
It allows the Secretary of Defense to identify the hazards of greatest concern that warrant special attention from the VA.
My bill switches the burden of proof from the soldier to the government. Soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals will receive care presumptively, unless the VA can show their illness is not related to their service.
Exposure to toxic chemicals is a threat no service member should have to face. It is our moral obligation to offer access to prompt, quality care. We should cut the red tape for these heroes.
Mr. Chairman, I promised Lt. Col. Gentry that I would fight for his men here in Congress. I promise I would use my position to get them the care they deserve and to make sure we protect our soldiers from preventable risks like this in the future.
This tragedy will be compounded if we do not take the steps to provide the best medical care this country has to offer.
Thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony today. I urge this committee to adopt S. 1779 to honor the sacrifice of Lt. Colonel Gentry and all of our brave men and women doing the hard, dangerous work of keeping America safe.
At present, the bill remains buried in the Senate Veterans Affairs committee. No surprise, it's the Senate committee that holds the least hearings. It's the Congressional committee that holds the least hearings. Anyone want to guess why? Anyone want to notice that Robert Byrd's not chairing any committees so why are we allowing someone with health issues to chair one -- especially so important of a committee as the veterans committee when two wars are ongoing? Anyone want to guess? If Bayh's bill remains buried through this month, it dies. It has to be reintroduced. (Bayh is not the chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, nor does he serve on it.) At present, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has no plans to meet this month -- not even for mark ups. Gentry died while the bill was buried in committee and though it wouldn't help him, it would help many others. While the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has no hearings scheduled, the House Veterans Affairs Committee, chaired by Bob Filner, has three scheduled for the month. (I know Bob Filner and I like him. I also know and like Daniel Akaka. That doesn't mean I won't call either out and Akaka is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affair Committee.)