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Proposed Klobuchar bill would back research, treatment for vets exposed to burn pits

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Woodbury resident Brian Muller (center) spoke in favor of a bill by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, right, that would support research and treatment of health effects veterans exposed to burn pits face. Muller's wife, Amie, died last year from pancreatic cancer believed to stem from her exposure to burn pit fumes during her tour in Iraq. Ryan Braaten (left), of Duluth, experienced similar exposure during his 2011-2013 tour in Iraq. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service2 / 2

WOODBURY, Minn.—Amie Muller returned home to Woodbury nearly a decade ago after serving a two-year tour in Iraq.

The end of her deployment, however, ushered in a gamut of health issues for Muller, including severe skin rashes and sun sensitivity, chronic fatigue and a fibromyalgia diagnosis. She was eventually diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2016.

Amie, a mother of three, died from the disease in February at 36.

"I have a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 15-year-old stepdaughter who I don't see that much anymore; the kids miss their sister and miss their mommy," Brian Muller said at a recent news conference. "Every day I have to wake up and find a way to spread joy in my kids' lives and trying to be happy. We had a lot of plans together. A lot of dreams, a lot of hopes."

Before her death, both Amie and her husband had long linked her numerous ailments to fumes from a massive burn pit in Balad, Iraq, where she was stationed.

These burn pits, which were used on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of everything from building materials to body parts, are at the center of new legislation U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, announced Sept. 29.

The bill, a joint effort between Klobuchar and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina would establish a center of excellence within the Department of Veterans Affairs to research, diagnose and treat health effects associated with exposure to burn pit fumes.

"Any effort to avoid the fumes was futile; the fumes engulfed the camps," Klobuchar said at a Sept. 29 news conference. "These stories underscore why we need to dig in and why we need to give research around exposure the merit it deserves. If we can save any lives or give people treatment sooner, we must do it."

Jeremy Wolfstellar, an Iraq veteran with the American Legion, said he often faced burn pit exposure when he was assigned to his compound's trash detail.

"Veterans should not and cannot wait many years like their fellow Vietnam veterans had to for the VA to understand the health effects associated with Agent Orange," he said. "I have been fortunate enough to not have symptoms as a VA, but if or when I do, I want to know that my VA stands ready to take care of me."

Although the extent of the fumes' effects on human health is unknown, burn pits have been linked to chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, neurological issues and respiratory disorders among Gulf War veterans.

Ryan Braaten, an Iraq War veteran from Duluth, would experience blurred vision and wheezing while running during his 2011 deployment. He was later diagnosed with asthma.

Today, the 28-year-old walks with a cane and is legally blind. His health issues have confounded doctors, who have yet to hone in on a diagnosis.

"It's been a long battle of usually going between psychiatrists and neurologists saying, 'we don't know what's going on, so it must be psychological,'" Braaten said. "The psychiatrists all said this has nothing to do with mental health issues."

The new bill, said Dr. Ron Bach, would help further existing research on diagnosing and treating health issues Gulf War veterans face, including those that stem from burn pit exposure.

Bach, the Research and Development Chair with the Minneapolis VA Health Care System Research Service, has focused his work on these issues for two decades.

"This translation of our model of research that starts with the belief that what veterans are suffering from is treatable," he said. "By identifying the biomarker fingerprint, you can then identify therapeutic targets. That allows you then to design clinical trials of evidence-based treatments that go after the underlying causes of this disorder."

Part of that research, Klobuchar said, will include determining how far-reaching are the effects of burn pit exposure. She encouraged Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to register with a VA database tracking the number of people exposed to the burn pit fumes.

"We don't know the extend of the problem, that's why we have the registry," she said. "Right now, there just isn't that national data that would help."

The bill recently passed the U.S. Senate as part the National Defense Authorization co-authored by Sen. John McCain. Klobuchar expects the bill to receive the same bipartisan support from the U.S. House.

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