“If you can afford to send them to war, then you damn well better be able to take care of them.”
This statement encapsulates why Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., continues to fight tirelessly for veterans suffering the effects of Agent Orange exposure.
“The folks who served in Vietnam … they know better than me and certainly better than anybody who didn’t serve in Vietnam that these sicknesses are real,” Tester said during an interview with The American Legion.
Tester, the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced a measure that will add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson's to the 14 illnesses already covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for their links to the toxic herbicide.
“I was really hoping VA would just do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Tester said. However, this measure brings Vietnam veterans one step closer to having their conditions covered by VA.
Tester’s addition to the National Defense Authorization Act passed the Senate in a 94-6 vote on July 22.
“This is a no-brainer for me,” Tester said. “We send young men and women off to war all the time. And they come back changed. Some of those you can see, some of them you can’t. Some of those changes have effects 50 years later and we owe it to those folks to make sure that they get coverage for these conditions that are brought on because of their service. It’s as simple as that.”
Initially, Tester pushed to also have hypertension added to the list of presumptive conditions.
“We wanted to get all four (conditions) put in, but we were able to negotiate three,” he said. “The reason we didn’t get hypertension is because VA is waiting for two more studies and Secretary Wilkie has assured me by the end of the year they’re going to make a decision.”
Tester believes VA’s resistance to covering hypertension has a lot to due with money.
“When we send folks off to war, money is never a problem,” he said. “But when you bring these folks back from war, money better not be an excuse because it wasn’t an excuse when you sent them over. If you can afford to send them over, then you damn well better be able to take care of them.”
The post-9/11 generation is also beginning to see the health implications of burn pit exposure. The science on burn pits is not as advanced as that on Agent Orange, said Tester, but the similarities are there.
“We need to fund the research to make sure that if our military folks were exposed to burn pits and that if they have conditions that come about due to this exposure, then we take care of it.
“The parallels are absolutely there,” he added. “I think the difference is just the research to back it up. And once we get that research, if the science backs it up, then we’ve got to step up once again and take care of these folks.”
Tester said one of the best ways to ensure veterans of past, present and future are all cared for is to continue to push against the red tape. It doesn’t matter if you’re a servicemember, veteran or just someone who’s passionate about veterans’ issues. Anyone can call their congressional representatives and ask them about issues they care about.
“We need to make sure your voices are being heard and that’s really where the veteran service organizations come in. You have tremendous power when VSO’s speak with one voice. You have tremendous power when The American Legion speaks period.”