Jerry Somsen Denied Benefits After Exposure to Toxic Burn Pits
President Biden brought up "burn pits" during a discussion of health benefits for veterans during his State of the Union address on March 1.
Congress is currently working on legislation to assist veterans affected by toxic smoke from burn pits used to dispose of human waste, chemical waste, munitions, and other hazardous materials in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for Jerry Somsen of Webster, South Dakota, a soldier throughout his youth and who commanded an Army National Guard unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Biden's words were merely a reminder that the wounds of war can linger, regardless of the origin.
In 2005, after returning from southern Iraq, the 54-year-old insurance executive developed tremors in his hands. It soon spread to both sides of his body and down his legs. Somsen was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease last year, a progressive nervous system disorder, even though he has no family history.
Somsen's hands trembled noticeably as he recounted the neurological tests and other medical appointments that, so far, didn't lead to any disability insurance from the USA. There are only certain conditions linked to burning pit exposure that the Department of Veteran Affairs recognizes.
As a Castlewood native and South Dakota State University graduate who retired from the National Guard in 2009, Somsen stated: "I didn't have this knowledge when I went overseas, and I came out knowing something was wrong." "I suppose you could say we signed up for it, but we didn't sign up to not be protected afterward."
He's one of 16 South Dakotans on a confidential registry of veterans who self-report symptoms related to burn pit exposure - from nasal congestion to lung cancer. After Congress passed legislation in 2013, Burn Pits 360, a non-profit advocacy group, began urging the VA to develop its data collection program.
Further action in Washington will come through negotiations between the Democrat-backed House measure and the more modest bipartisan Senate measure. There continues to be a misunderstanding between veterans and their families regarding the treatment and financial assistance that the government may provide.
The vast majority of veterans understand that there needs to be a process that works based on evidence, said Republican Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota.
Johnson voted against the bill in the House, but he supports it in the Senate. He stated that most scientists understand that it takes some time to determine what the science is, but what they dislike is when political disputes or bureaucratic inefficiency slow down the delivery of the science.
Back home in Webster, Somsen and his wife look through photographs of his time in Kuwait and Iraq, which he used to call home. They lament the frustration of seeing a once-healthy husband and father slipping into a debilitating illness with no relief in sight.
Serving in Iraq
Larry Somsen grew up on a farm outside Castlewood, about 40 miles north of Brookings, one of seven children. After growing up, he joined the ranks of his siblings at SDSU, and he fell in love with the pomp and precision of military service.
Lowell Somsen, my oldest brother, served in the Guard as an officer. I attended one of his drills at Mitchell Armory and decided I wanted to be that guy."
When Jerry entered the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at SDSU, he had already finished basic training. After earning a degree in mathematics in 1990, he attended U.S. Army Field Artillery Officers Basic School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where his math background proved beneficial.
During his master's degree at SDSU, Somsen had three kids and was going through a divorce while still a National Guard member. He embarked on a career with Dakotah Incorporated in 1997 and met Kari through the church, making fun of her lines in an Easter pageant.
The couple married in 2000 and welcomed a daughter to their family of three girls. Somsen's sense of domestic bliss was shattered on Sept. 11, 2001, when the planes hit the World Trade Center on his way to work.
He served in the 147th Field Artillery Battalion of the South Dakota Army National Guard. While the 1st Battalion was called to action, it never deployed overseas. The war ended too quickly.
The 2nd Battalion made its first deployment that year, where it was tasked with capturing and destroying enemy ammunition with Somsen as executive officer, second in command. He said, "We were unaware of our mission until we arrived.". Our stuff was retrieved from snowbanks in South Dakota within 36 hours and was in Iraq within a couple weeks.
Their operation began in Kuwait and ended at Camp Cedar in southern Iraq, where they escorted convoys in 130-degree heat with Wall Drug bumper stickers on their vehicles. From the fire pits around the perimeter, there was a thick layer of smoke wafting through the compound.
In response to a question regarding whether it occurred to him that the fumes were dangerous, he said, "To this day, I wish it hadn't.". Your soldiers' safety is your priority, so we were more focused on the enemy threat and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In retrospect, I believe that every member of our battalion spent substantial time in burn pits or in smoke that was harmful to them.
Is it possible for me to live until I am 80?’
Somsen felt something was wrong even before he returned from Iraq in February 2005. He experienced periods of nervousness and anxiety he had not previously experienced, but managed to calm himself down.
In November 2007, he had to hold the microphone with difficulty because of tremors in his right hand and side that started after he got back. When he went back to his old high school six months later for a Memorial Day event, he had to hide his hands and decided that he wasn't cut out to speak in public.
He was aware of war's dangers, having been awarded the Bronze Star for his post-9/11 service. Other veterans, some of whom had lost their lives in Iraq, had been more severely affected. Even to his family, he downplayed what was happening to him and focused on his job at the DakotaCare office in Webster, where he's been since 2007.
On the way back from Iraq, I learned I was to be a battalion commander, for which I had basically been working all my life. «I still had a chance to make full colonel,» I thought. My concern (about the tremors) was that I would be forced to be discharged for medical reasons.
While the tremors increased in severity on both sides of his body and throughout his legs, Somsen decided to retire in 2009 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. It was back home that he encountered his next battle, which was in the hospital corridors and exam rooms after applying for disability and joining a legion of fellow veterans.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes says the department is tracking claims for about 2.5 million veterans who were deployed in the Gulf War region from September 2001 to the present, and were potentially exposed to airborne hazards during deployments. There are approximately 1.6 million of them that have applied for disability benefits.
The tests, which included a spinal tap and brain scanning, led a neurologist to conclude that Somsen had Parkinson's. The cause of the illness was primarily linked to the exposure to radiation during his time in Iraq, which may have caused symptoms to emerge earlier than they would otherwise have. He doesn't have a family history of it."
According to Hayes of South Dakota News Watch, the VA's position is that "no link has yet been established between these exposures and Parkinson's Disease," citing scientific research from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
With Somsen being unable to hide his ailment for many years, he is now confronted with the uncomfortable task of proving its existence, aided by Kari as his principal advocate. They're thinking about taking their disability case to the Board of Veterans' Appeals in Washington D.C. after it was rejected last time.
As for Somsen, he keeps up with his work, joins the community and keeps up with his daughters, the youngest of whom went to SDSU.
Congress looks into funding
Earlier this year, South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds met with representatives of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to discuss potential legislation to assist burn pit and toxic exposure victims.
Members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee like Rounds have pushed for more research into the health effects of burn pits, and he co-sponsored a bill that improved the level of care veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during the pandemic received.
This momentum continued earlier this year, when the Senate unanimously passed the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, which extended health coverage eligibility for veterans post-9/11 from five to ten years after discharge. It also gave late applicants a one-year window to apply. Additionally, the bill would require VA personnel to undergo training in toxic exposures as well as expand federal research in this area.
Two days after VP Biden delivered his State of the Union address, the House passed a bill to expand treatment and benefits to all veterans with toxic exposure illnesses.
House bill, a sweeping proposal to expand treatment and benefits for veterans with illnesses from service-related toxic exposures, passed by 256-174 after Biden delivered State of the Union address. Johnson joined most Republicans in voting against the legislation, accusing Democrats of political posturing since the legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate and, therefore, will not become law.
He compared it to the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when more than 2 million vets were at risk from Agent Orange, a herbicide mix the military sprayed over jungles to remove dense tropical foliage that gave enemies cover. There was an inordinate delay between reaching decisions on presumptive conditions for those affected, and the president is determined not to repeat the mistake.
With the president's urging and legislation under way, a compromise between House and Senate bills seems likely, providing veterans with more clarity about their disability status.
Because of questions about his medical condition, Somsen does not anticipate Congress will find a solution to his problem. It's his hope that further medical research can find a link between what's happening in his body and all those toxic exposures while he was serving his country.
It's at least good that more attention is being paid to burned pits and soldiers who may have been affected, so they can't suffer in silence.