BOSTON – State Rep. John C. Velis, D-Westfield, was joined March 11 by veteran advocacy groups from across Massachusetts to support a bill that would create the coordination of registering veterans exposed to open burn pits and educating them on related potential hazards and medical concerns.
Velis and fellow veterans testified before the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs Hearing in support of his bill H.4512-An Act relative to the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit.
“My firm belief is that burn pits are to this generation of veterans what Agent Orange was to Vietnam veterans,” Velis said. “I would strenuously argue that we can’t allow the same amount of time to pass before we do the right thing and take care of our service members. What happened to Vietnam Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange is absolutely unconscionable and cannot be repeated.”
An open burn pit is the common means of getting rid of all types of waste at certain overseas military sites. Airborne hazards are often the dust and chemicals that are in the air from the pollution of surrounding areas, or the burning of such chemicals and waste. However, most people do not know what airborne hazards and burn pits are due to the lack of dialogue around the topic. Velis wants to help those who were exposed as soon as possible.
“Our brothers and sisters from Vietnam had to wait way too long before their exposure to Agent Orange was acknowledged and compensated. We will not allow that same fate to happen to this generation of veterans,” said Velis.
Velis said he was proud of the bill and those who testified with him.
“I was proud and honored to testify shoulder to shoulder with fellow Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans about the need for the Massachusetts Legislature to pass this this bill so we can protect our veterans here in the Commonwealth,” he said.
For Velis, a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, the Act came from his experience during deployments to Afghanistan.
“This bill, on a fundamental level, is about taking a stand and advocating for the less than one-percent of our population that are war veterans,” Velis said. “I’ll never forget when I went for my first jog while deployed in Kabul and recognizing that my run time dropped. I went back to the chow hall thinking I was out of shape, but was told by my fellow servicemembers that it was simply the air quality I was breathing in. I thought to myself ‘there’s no way this is good for my health’.”
Velis said creating a registry would raise awareness for those who were exposed.
“One of the ways we can track this is by getting as many eligible service members to register for it as possible,” Velis said. “To be able to raise awareness for this issue that so many of our service members are experiencing during their everyday duty, but may not realize the potential health concerns, is something we owe to those who serve our great nation.”
The bill seeks to have the Massachusetts Department of Veteran Services (DVS) coordinate with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to create educational information in both electronic and paper form regarding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry for Massachusetts veterans and service members. This information would be distributed to Veteran Service Offices, licensed health care providers, and anyone else deemed appropriate to make this more common knowledge to help people understand what they are being exposed to and how their government can help.
“This is a profound health concern for our veterans and active service members, and thus, we must make an earnest effort to provide all of those who are eligible with regular updates on new information to help raise awareness of potential health concerns,” Velis said.
Those who are potentially eligible would be notified, including National Guard members who may be eligible during standard medical evaluations.
“As the vice chair of this committee and a veteran, I take a lot of pride in presenting this bill to my colleagues, advocating for this topic and raising awareness of it,” said Velis.
At the time of filing the bill, there were only 192,920 people who had signed up for the Registry since its inception in 2014 of the estimated 3 million veterans who qualify. Louisiana, Vermont, Texas and New Mexico have passed similar laws.
“Today on Beacon hill a very strong message was delivered,” said Velis, “and that message was that Massachusetts veterans of foreign wars will not sit by idly and wait for the U.S. Congress to do the right thing by recognizing burn pit exposure as the harm that it is.”
Velis said the bill will likely be put to a vote soon.
“I fully expect this bill to move swiftly through the legislative process and come up for a vote in the very near future,” he said.