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Published: 1/24/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Toledo native is invited to State of Union speech

Disabled vet aims to call attention to medical woes

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Daniel Meyer. Daniel Meyer.
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A 27-year-old Toledo native who is a disabled veteran is honored he's been asked to attend President Obama's speech to Congress on Tuesday night.

And he hopes his presence will come with a message to those in Washington -- one about medical problems that military personnel like himself are having after exposure to toxic chemicals and fumes from waste materials burned overseas.

Daniel Meyer, who lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Harmonie, is medically retired from the Air Force and has multiple health problems from exposure to so-called burn pits, including an obstructive lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.

He was invited to attend President Obama's State of the Union address as an audience member by U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Nevada Democrat whose office Mr. Meyer called for assistance before the staff sergeant was medically retired Oct. 1.

A Start High School graduate who was in the Air Force for nearly six years, Mr. Meyer said he slept across the road from a massive open-air burn pit that had been at Joint Base Balad while stationed in Iraq, and he also was exposed to toxins from burned waste materials while serving in Afghanistan. Now Mr. Meyer and others affected by burn pits used by contractors instead of incinerators to dispose of waste are pushing for a national registry and other federal recognition.

An organization with which Mr. Meyer is involved, Burn Pits 360, has registered about 400 military personnel with various medical problems believed to be caused by burning medical and other waste, including skin cancer and brain lesions. It took about four years for his symptoms to become debilitating, so more soldiers could encounter any of an array of problems in coming years, Mr. Meyer said.

"It's been showing itself in a lot of different ways," said Mr. Meyer, who needs oxygen full time and uses a wheelchair. "It doesn't always react the same way in everybody."

Ms. Berkley's office confirmed Monday that Mr. Meyer, who was stationed at Nevada's Nellis Air Force base, was invited to attend the State of the Union address as her lone guest.

"As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Meyer proudly served our nation in time of war, and we salute his valor and recognize the bravery and sacrifice of all the men and women in America's armed forces, our veterans, and their families," Ms. Berkley said in a statement to The Blade.

When reached in Washington on Monday, Mr. Meyer said, "It's a big honor to be chosen to go to the State of the Union."

On Monday, he and his wife went on a tour of the Capitol building, and they plan to visit the White House on Wednesday. While in Washington, they hope to talk to those they meet about exposure to burn pits, Mr. Meyer said.

Before being diagnosed with the obstructive lung disease, Mr. Meyer was repeatedly told he had bronchitis, and he would cough up blood at times because his throat was so irritated. Eventually, Mr. Meyer's case was flagged because he had sought treatment so often.

"I just kept coughing and coughing and couldn't stop," recalled Mr. Meyer, whose father, Jeff Meyer, lives in Swanton and mother, Linda Lee, lives in Toledo.

Besides being active with Burn Pits 360, Mr. Meyer writes a blog and maintains a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Burn Pits 360 is working with Stony Brook University to collect information from affected military personnel to help doctors diagnose and treat problems from exposures.

Rosie Lopez-Torres, executive director of Burn Pits 360, said the group wants federal legislation to establish a national registry. They also want the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to develop a health-care regimen, as well as ensure soldiers and veterans receive compensation and benefits for treatment, she said.

"So many people are suffering financially trying to seek their specialty health care," said Ms. Lopez-Torres, whose husband was exposed to and affected by burn pits.

Mr. Meyer takes more than a dozen medications for heart and other problems. And although Mr. Meyer receives health coverage as part of his medical retirement, he said he is having difficulties getting a diagnosis and treatment for fatty masses on his knees that prevent him from walking.

"I basically can't step down with my right leg anymore," Mr. Meyer said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: jmckinnon@theblade.com, or 419-724-6087.



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