When Daniel Larsen stood to speak at a mid-October town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, it wasn’t to voice a complaint about the recent government shutdown or to discuss Second Amendment rights.
The issue he brought forward was very specific, one that he and scores of other Navy veterans had dealt with for years, yet remained unknown to officials like Schrader.
Beginning in 1992, when he was deployed to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan, Larsen was exposed on a daily basis to an array of toxic chemicals generated by the Skinkampo trash incinerator located off-base. He sees it as no coincidence that, in the years following his service, he has dealt with chronic health issues such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and short-term memory loss.
Scores of others — including Larsen’s friend Marlyn Miller — have reported similar or even worse health problems following their time in Atsugi. They claim that the military failed to properly disclose the risks upon deployment and has refused to provide proper health coverage for those affected — including families who lived at the base.
That’s where Schrader comes in.
After hearing Larsen’s story at the town hall meeting, Schrader agreed to meet with Larsen and Miller in person to discuss how he might be able to help. The meeting, fittingly, took place on Veterans Day at Larsen’s West Linn home.
Schrader agreed it is a major issue and promised to begin working on a solution.
“These gentlemen have been lied to,” Schrader said. “Their families have been exposed to things that the military knew about and, so far, has refused to acknowledge their responsibility. We’re going to do what we can to make sure their families at least get health care.”
Schrader said the first step will be to gather more information to better understand the chronology of what happened and who was responsible.
“Then we’ll go ahead and talk to the Department of Defense and Department of Navy, and see if we can’t get them to do the right thing,” Schrader said. “If not, then we’ll put legislation in any bill that we can.”
Aside from their own personal health problems, Larsen and Miller have confirmed more than 100 cases of cancer in veterans who spent time in Atsugi. Of the 600 families they’ve surveyed, 98 percent reported health problems.
According to Larsen, the majority of these health issues aren’t covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, in part because Congress has yet to appropriate funding or specify what side effects for Atsugi veterans must be covered.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Larsen and Miller found that both the air and water at the base were contaminated by 236 different chemicals — 27 of which exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum exposure limit. Many of the chemicals were dispersed by the off-site trash incinerator, which operated from 1985 to 2001.
The first warning about the dangers of the chemicals, according to Larsen, did not come until 1997, when the Department of Navy added a “Standard Form 600” to service members’ permanent medical records. The form acknowledged that an air-quality survey report from 1995 listed 12 emissions that exceeded EPA standards.
A waiver form distributed in 1998 classified Atsugi as a “hazardous and high-risk duty station,” but Larsen and Miller said service members had little choice but to sign it for fear of being blackballed from the military.
Miller, for his part, was stationed at Atsugi for three years and has since battled lung cancer, liver damage and neurological issues. His wife and daughter lived with him at the base, and the Millers suffered numerous miscarriages when they tried to conceive a second child.
Larsen, Miller and other members of the “NAF Atsugi Incinerator Group” are primarily interested in obtaining further health benefits from the military. Dependents like Miller’s wife and daughter are mostly shut out from coverage at this point, and even veterans themselves aren’t being properly treated, according to Larsen.
This isn’t Larsen and Miller’s first appeal to Congress. In 2010, they pushed to pass a bill that would “authorize health care for certain individuals exposed to environmental hazards at Camp Lejeune and the Atsugi Naval Air Facility,” but it died in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Though Congress is gridlocked on many issues, Schrader said this is an issue everyone should agree on.
“We’re not getting much done these days, as you might have noticed,” Schrader said. “But there are some ‘must pass’ legislations.”
Both Larsen and Miller came away from the meeting feeling hopeful about the future.
“He was very receptive, extremely helpful,” Larsen said.
“He was concerned for the active-duty retirees and their families,” Miller said. “He was willing to take that on, and that’s going to be a huge battle for him as well.”
Moving forward, Larsen and Miller hope to start a registry of every veteran who served at Atsugi from 1985 to 2001, spreading word about the issue while also taking stock of how many people were affected by the chemical exposure.
“There are so many people who were exposed and dying of cancers,” Miller said. “They need to be able to get that treatment.”
To learn more about Larsen and Miller’s efforts, visit nafatsugiincineratorgroup.weebly.com.