October 22, 2009

Defense Authorization Bill Passes, Including Wyden Proposals on Back Pay for Troops and Ban on Burn Pits

Washington, D.C. - Persisting in his work to safeguard the financial and physical health of our troops, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) secured retroactive pay for 864 Oregon soldiers under the Post Deployment and Mobilization Respite Absence (PDMRA) program along with a ban on the burning of hazardous chemical waste in war zones as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (H.R. 2647).

"This bill takes concrete action on some really important issues for our troops," said Wyden. "It protects them from unnecessary chemical exposure that's damaged the health of some soldiers from Oregon and changed their lives forever. It also rights a bureaucratic wrong that was keeping hundreds of our troops from getting the back pay they've earned."

The Defense Authorization bill includes a ban, similar to one Wyden offered as an amendment to the bill, which would end the use of open-air burn pits in war zones to dispose of garbage. Wyden has been fighting to end the use of such toxic waste disposal since he learned that Oregon soldiers who'd been exposed to the fumes from such pits were suffering serious health consequences. In particular, Oregon Guardsmen who had been deployed to Iraq, where burn pits were used, have suffered respiratory ailments and other health conditions.

Currently, it is common for bases to have large pits where waste of all kinds is burned, including plastics, rubber, and hazardous and medical waste. This exposes troops to carcinogens and poisons. The language allows for exceptions to the ban only in cases where the Secretary of Defense finds that there is no other option and provides a full report to Congress on the exception. Wyden has actively pursued an investigation into the effects of burning waste near troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, after reports that Oregon troops have suffered health problems from exposure to the toxic smoke.

The bureaucratic problem solved by the bill involves PDMRA pay that will now go to over 20,000 service members nationwide who had not received their earned leave due to a delay between the announcement of the leave program by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the establishment of the program by the individual services. The legislation will allow the DoD to reimburse soldiers who were left out during that period. Under the provision included in the Defense Authorization bill, the Department of Defense's Personnel office will have the legal authority to pay a $200 per-day benefit retroactively.