Full Remarks: Chemical Weapons in Iraq

On Thursday, October 16th, Seth held a press conference to address The New York Times' revelation that chemical weapons were found in Iraq and American troops were exposed to mustard and sarin gas. His full remarks are included below:

Thank you all for being here today.

Iraq has chemical weapons. And young Americans have been exposed to both mustard and sarin gas. Now, this comes as a shock to all Americans, and we are struggling to understand why this has been covered up for so long.

Now, it is easy to see decisions like this as black and white. Those of us who have been in war know that war is not black and white; but one thing that absolutely is black and white is taking care of our veterans. And that has not happened in this case.

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When Specialist Richard Beasley, as reported by The New York Times, went for treatment for a blister the size of his hand due to exposure to mustard gas, he was given some cream and turned away. Not even the right treatment for that exposure. Other soldiers have had to self-diagnose their own exposure to mustard gas.

And, sadly, this is just one more event in what has become a yearlong saga about how veterans have not received the care they earned and that they deserve.

This is an issue that is very personal for me. I get my own health care from the VA—I see the problems. It is an imperfect system. I actually have a great primary care physician, but just getting an appointment can take months.

One of my heroes in the Iraq War is a guy named James Hassel, who was in my platoon. He grew up in a tough family in Alabama; his father had never even been on an airplane before last year. But he was a good Marine, and he served his country well.

When we were in a tough spot in Najaf in 2004, another Marine from my platoon named Ryan, from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was hit by a grenade in a building we were in. And James put Ryan on his back and carried him to safety through absolutely withering machine gun fire. He saved Ryan’s life. Now when James got out he wanted to continue serving, and save back lives here at home. So he went to nursing school, got a good degree and a great job working at a hospital—saving lives every day. 

But he was still troubled by post-traumatic stress. And so he went to the VA. But in a story you will hear repeated among veterans from this war and past wars, the VA didn’t give him the counseling he needed. They just gave him medications. And in fact they prescribed him so many medications that, at the age of 30, James died of a heart attack just from taking the medications prescribed to him by the VA.

That is not taking care of our veterans.

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We fail our veterans here in America when we send them to wars they have no business being involved in, when we do not provide adequate treatment for them in the field, as was clearly the case here with chemical weapons in Iraq, and when VA facilities across the country are ill-prepared to handle the veterans coming home. We also fail veterans when career politicians like Richard Tisei vote against veterans benefits and against funding for disabled veterans.

So what needs to be done? First, there must be immediate acknowledgement by the military of the soldiers’ condition—the soldiers who were exposed to mustard and sarin gas in Iraq—and what treatment they need.

Second, these soldiers ought to be recognized with the appropriate awards for what they did. It’s out in the open now; it should no longer be covered up.

Third, now that we all know that there are chemical weapons in Iraq, there has to be a full accounting of them: who controls them, what threat they pose, and what we might be able to do to destroy them. We cannot allow these weapons to fall into the hands of the wrong people.

Next, the VA is responsible for administering veterans care. But Congress has responsibility for overseeing the VA. It will be my first priority in Congress to bring needed reform to the VA. To improve VA quality, to provide funding where it is needed, to expand educational opportunities in the GI Bill, and to ensure the VA bureaucracy serves today’s veterans. 

The peak of veterans’ claims from World War I was in 1969—not 1920 or 1925, but 1969. So the VA was really a system built to serve World War I veterans. We haven’t even seen the peak of claims from Vietnam. In fact, it has just been in the last few years that Vietnam War veterans have recognized that some of the conditions they have—cancer, Parikinsons, and other conditions—are related to Agent Orange expsoure, another chemical from their war, and they are just not getting the care they have need and deserve from the VA.

But likewise, if the VA today can’t take care of today’s veterans, including many veterans who have post-traumatic stress, we haven’t even seen the beginning of this problem, because those claims will only go up as more and more veterans from today’s wars come to terms with their needs and go seek it from the VA. So if the VA cannot handle what they are seeing today, it’s certainly not in a position to deal with the future.

Next week I am convening a summit with experts on veterans health care, and we will be talking with these national experts about what can be done. Not political talking points, but a very serious discussion about what reforms are needed and what action Congress can take.

We have never had fewer veterans in Congress in our nation’s history, and we don’t have a single combat veteran from Massachusetts representing us in either the House or Senate. It’s time to have that voice in Washington as well, and it’s time for us to have that voice from Massachusetts.

Thank you all for being here today, and I would be delighted to take your questions.