WSU to Study Iraq Toxins' Effect
by Bert Caldwell
Research to examine how exposure might damage offspring of soldiers
Washington State University scientists will use a $1.7 million grant to study what multi-generation genetic damage might be done by toxins U.S. troops could encounter in Iraq.
The research using laboratory rats, not humans, will be the first for the military to examine the epigenetic effects of pesticides, herbicides and other compounds, said lead scientist Michael Skinner, director of the university's Center for Reproductive Biology.
Previous studies have looked at the health effects of other substances, notably the Agent Orange used to defoliate jungles in Vietnam, on the soldiers directly exposed, he said, not on their children or grandchildren.
"The science really had not caught up with the trans-generational stuff," said Skinner, one of several WSU pioneers in the field of epigenetic, or multi-generational, inheritance.
Besides herbicides and pesticides – which and in what combinations has not been determined – the study also will look at the effects of explosives residues, he said.
The four-year study will allow researchers to see how any changes in genetic chemistry that develop are passed along through two subsequent generations of rats, he said, noting that only the first two years of research have been funded.
Among the problems that might develop are kidney disease, or changes in the male and female reproductive organs, he said.
If any genetic markers are identified in rats, Skinner said, follow-up research could look at whether they might show up among members of the military as well.
That would be of particular interest to Dave Holmes, interim chief operating officer of the Institute for Systems Medicine, which was awarded the U.S. Department of Defense grant passed through to Skinner.
Holmes' son, Tim Hammond, did two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.
"They sprayed all kinds of stuff on them," Holmes said.
Although the grant money, the first awarded ISM, will fund work in Pullman, he said the organization's supporters hope any subsequent clinical studies will be done in Spokane.
"There's a lot of excitement about making it happen," he said.
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Concurrent receipt may not be properly funded
Just days after the Obama administration announced plans to provide full concurrent receipt of disability and military retired pay to eligible veterans by Jan. 1, 2015, a key House committee chairman threw a bucket of cold water on the initiative.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a supporter of allowing disabled retirees to concurrently receive full military and veterans benefits, said the Obama initiative included in the 2011 defense budget request does not satisfy the House’s strict budgeting rules.
Skelton said the problem is that the administration has not identified specific offsets — either cuts in existing programs or revenue increases — to pay for the new benefits for disabled retirees.
“This committee has a deep commitment to this issue and our veterans, but we simply cannot enact it unless the administration identifies and advocates for specific offsets,” Skelton said Wednesday at a committee hearing on the 2011 defense request.
The budget request sent to Congress on Monday adds $408 million to the military retirement trust fund in 2011 specifically to cover the first phase of a five-year plan to expand concurrent receipt. The money would go to pay full retired pay to people medically retired from the military with fewer than 20 years of service who have disability ratings of 90 percent or greater. The Obama plan calls for full concurrent receipt to be phased in by Jan. 1, 2015, for all disabled retirees who are eligible for both military retired pay and veterans disability compensation.
But Skelton said the $408 million increase in the trust fund doesn’t meet congressional “pay-as-you-go” rules, which require a specific offset to pay for a specific increase. Without an offset, Skelton said the committee is unable to pass concurrent receipt legislation.
This is not a new problem. The same thing happened last year when the Obama administration proposed a similar expansion of concurrent receipt without including any funding. Skelton said his committee ended up “holding the bag” for an unfunded initiative.
Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., a longtime sponsor of concurrent receipt legislation who also sits on the armed services committee, said he is not ready to give up. Marshall said he hopes the armed services committee would “work closely” with the House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for tax policy, to find money for concurrent receipt.
“It seems to me we ought to be able to find $5.1 billion over a 10-year period of time, as large as our mandatory spending is. We ought to be able to do that and get this done once and for all,” Marshall said.
Obama floats new concurrent receipt plan
As part of his fiscal 2011 budget request, President Obama again is asking to expand the number of disabled military retirees who are eligible for concurrent receipt of full veterans disability benefits and military retired pay.
The proposal, outlined in an Office of Management and Budget document, would make all “medically retired” service members eligible for concurrent receipt by 2015.
At issue is an ongoing effort launched by Congress in 2004 to gradually repeal a law dating to the late 19th century that required disabled military retirees to forfeit a dollar of military retired pay for every dollar received in veterans disability compensation.
The OMB budget document does not provide further detail on the new proposal. But it appears to be a scaled-down reprise of a plan to expand concurrent receipt that the White House floated last year and that Congress did not approve.
The first three years of that plan would have applied to service members who were given medical retirement short of the 20 years of service normally required to qualify for military retirement benefits. That group had not been included in previous concurrent receipt expansions.
The last two years would have covered all veterans with disability ratings of less than 50 percent, no matter how many years they had served. Under current law, retirees with service-connected disabilities must have disability ratings of 50 percent or more to be eligible for concurrent receipt.
The new proposal in the 2011 budget makes no specific mention of expanding concurrent receipt to veterans with disability ratings of less than 50 percent.