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The New Agent Orange?

Rosie Torres sent her 35-year-old husband off to war and watched him return a year later an old man. The handsome Army Reserve captain looked the same on the outside, but he was so brittle on the inside that he was forced out of his full-time job as a Texas state trooper four years after his tour in Iraq.

“Last week we turned in his gun and holster,” Torres told TAC in September. “He’s letting go of his lifelong, childhood dream.”

LeRoy Torres, now 39, is one of a growing number of vets – no one knows yet how many – suffering from unexplained, chronic respiratory and cardiopulmonary illnesses believed to be associated with exposure to the noxious open-air pits that burned trash, hazardous materials, and waste on U.S bases and installations for years [1].

TAC has followed this issue [2] since October 2009. Today, Rosie heads Burn Pits 360 [3], an advocacy organization for these sick veterans and their families as well as loved ones representing veterans who have died from cancer and other serious ailments post-deployment.

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LeRoy Torres was stationed in Iraq at Joint Base Balad [4], which hosted the biggest pit in the theater, incinerating an estimated 147 tons of waste a day as of 2008 [5]. “He described to me the stench, the smell, the smoke, the plume, the residue that it would leave in their quarters — like white ash. He didn’t know why, but something even then told him to stop doing PT [physical training) outside,” Rosie says.

It wasn’t until after Rosie and LeRoy began searching for the cause of his worrisome shortness of breath that they came across the many others who were beginning to sense that the burn pits had contributed to such life-altering symptoms.

What’s important is that doctors like Anthony Szema of Stonybrook University  [6]sensed it, too, and have conducted research indicating that the air quality around burn pits like Balad can be linked to acute illnesses like constrictive bronchiolitis [7] and depleted immune systems [8] in veterans. Several members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have been so compelled by the growing body of both medical and anecdotal evidence that they have helped to expedite the removal of the pits from all bases [9], and have put forth a bill in Congress that would create the first registry  [10]for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) vets who believe they are suffering from symptoms that can be traced to their proximity to burn pits during deployment. The registry bill has passed the House and is now part of broader veterans health care legislation pending in the Senate.

For veterans and their advocates, the registry is the single most important platform for raising awareness and getting help for what they say are service-connected injuries. Not only would the registry consolidate all of the disparate personal stories and names from unofficial online registries (including a fairly comprehensive one [11] at the Burn Pit 360 site), but it also would allow for a statistical analysis of where these individuals served, and what they are suffering from. Finally, it would create a channel for government outreach, much like the Gulf War and Vietnam-era registries.

To Ramsay Sulayman, an Iraq vet who manages legislative affairs for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a public registry is a win-win for the vet. It would bring the issue to light and force the government to tackle it in a more transparent way.

It may also mean hearing from tens of thousands of veterans who have yet to weigh in. More than two million Americans served in OIF/OEF, and a great number of them passed through, or were stationed at places like Balad. “We burned everything all day long,” he recalled of his 2008-2009 stint in Iraq. “Basically, everybody who was deployed over there was exposed in some way to a burn pit.”

The only thing standing in the way of a Veterans Affairs’ registry now, however, is the VA itself. In fact, the agency sees it as more of a nuisance than an effective way of getting a handle on an elusive problem.

According to Curtis Coy, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, the VA already administers an “injury-and-illness surveillance system” for all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. In his recent testimony before Congress [12], Coy also cast doubt on the burn pits as a major contributor to veterans’ illnesses, pointing to a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study [13] that surveyed the emissions (albeit with old data) from the Balad burn pit. While acknowledging that air pollution was indeed a major concern, the committee leading the study was “unable to say whether exposures to emissions from the burn pit at (Joint Base Balad) have caused long-term health effects.”

That is also the official line of the Department of Defense, which recently downplayed a memo [14] unearthed by Wired  [15]last spring stating in quite unequivocal terms that the air quality at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2010 was so bad that long-term exposure to it carried the risk of chronic health problems, including reduced lung function and obstructive pulmonary disease. But DoD says this still doesn’t prove the monster burn pit there played a decisive role.

The VA is on the case, insisted Coy, and that if it wishes to publish a registry for outreach purposes, it can do so without a mandate from Congress. But it’s unnecessary because it won’t help the VA determine why these veterans are getting sick: “We do not believe that a health registry is the appropriate epidemiological tool to use in identifying possible adverse health effects associated with certain environmental exposures. Health registries can only produce very limited and possibly skewed results.”

Furthermore, testified Coy, the the VA and DOD have “established a detailed action plan that includes research, clinical protocols, outreach and education” for the OIF/OEF veteran cohort and are already involved in “several focused studies on the health effects to this cohort” including exposure to burn pits, as well as a VA-led epidemiological study to be completed by the end of 2012.

Adrian Atizado, assistant national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) [16], says he understands that the registries are not a scientific tool nor always effective at proper outreach, pointing to the Gulf War Illness registry [17], which tracks 111,000 veterans. He said there have been a lot of missed opportunities — most of the Gulf War vets have undergone only one examination since they joined the registry, limiting the information the government can ultimately glean from them. VA outreach to the veterans has been equally inadequate, Atizado charged.

“Is is only a tool,” he told TAC, “and it is only as good as it is used.” Nonetheless, the DAV supports the registry because it is at least one way through which the government can get ahead of this latest toxic exposure problem. Certainly the government was slow in acknowledging deployment-borne illnesses in the past — i.e Agent Orange [18]. A burn pit registry might keep the pressure on while all the facts are sorted out.

Of course the subtext to many of these conversations is that a registry sets up a host of potential liabilities for the government, a pipeline for new veterans’ benefits, and the risk of fraud. That could be expensive. Indeed, many people have blamed the government’s seemingly glacial response to the crisis on its impulse to save money. No matter, said Rosie Torres, if a registry can lead to health care and benefits for a sick soldier, then it will have done its job.

The registry might have to wait, though. The lame duck session does not bode well for any new bills in Congress this year, especially legislation the VA opposes. Rosie Torres says she will push for a new bill next year. In the meantime, she will continue cultivating the Burn Pits 360 registry, now 1,200 veterans strong. She is working with Seton Hall law school students who have sifted through mounds of information to get a statistical picture of what these vets are going through.

“Basically we will go back to the Hill and knock on all the legislators’ doors like we did in the beginning.”

“This is our nightmare,” she continued. “And we’re just one of the thousands. Something has to give.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The New Agent Orange?"

#1 Comment By AnotherBeliever On October 16, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

While not usually as serious a problem as Traumatic Brain Injury, there are a handful Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans with pulmonary issues serious enough to eventually require a lung transplant. For most, though, it’s just a persistent cough and shortness of breath, enough to require some medication and to dampen participation in active athletics (this last bit precludes a law enforcement or firefighting career.) At least two members of my old platoon have breathing problems, and I’ve read about many more in Veterans forums. The military will treat these problems, but will cease promoting you and eventually show you the door if you can’t meet the physical standards. The VA typically runs a couple tests, shrugs, says, “It’s not asthma,” hands out free asthma meds and then rejects any disability claims, stating that it’s not service connected and that Veteran would be able to breathe fine if they’d just get back into shape. Ah, bureaucracy.

#2 Comment By DSmith On October 20, 2012 @ 7:57 am

All the while George W, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Judith Miller, Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and all of the good folks over at AIPAC who were so instrumental in promoting f two completely unnecessary wars won’t lift a finger to help vets in their time of need. These “Warriors” are expendable in the fabricated War on Terror.

While Kelley’s article addresses a growing health problem for the military personnel, there is also a report showing that babies born around burn pits and weapons residue (Depleted uranium) increased the chances of them being born with horrible birth defects.

What really makes me angry is that all of the neocons, with their little maps of the middle east showing which countries should be toppled and their insane Project for a new American Century policy papers, are enjoying the good life not giving a damn about anyone other than themselves and the racist apartheid Israeli settlers, the real reason these wars are being fought.

#3 Comment By Silvermaven On October 20, 2012 @ 8:31 am

When are these people going to learn? Sick cells cannot detox. Repeat and call me in the morning. Where do the criminals think 1 in 29 of our kids are getting their stealth infections? That’s right the criminals gave them to them.

#4 Comment By brainfan On October 20, 2012 @ 8:33 am

Many of these soldiers will join their many thousands of comrades living and dying with “Gulf War Syndrome”. This syndrome features the disease called multiple chemical sensitivity, which is suffered by civilians all over the world, including clean-up crews from Valdez, 9/11, Katrina, and the BP oil spill. These veterans will now face their most cunning, ruthless, and tireless enemy: the chemical industry and their dogmatic minions who will deny their illnesses with ignorant, cruel charges of somaticism.

#5 Comment By Brian On October 20, 2012 @ 9:26 am

One would have thought with the appointment of a soldier instead of a bureaucrat as SecVA that the VA might change and be receptive of he evidence presented of the unhealthy environments they place our soldiers in…but, I guess Shinseki has found it easier to get along by going along with the SOP…deny and delay and dump. They know what they’re doing to the troops…and despite assurances, they really don’t care. Any surprise that a description of the conditions the troops will have to exist within is NOT part of the recruiting message they use to ensnare the young?

#6 Comment By Gregory On October 20, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

Burning household trash creates dioxins. Dioxin is what made agent orange so deadly. These soldiers are sick from this. Hopefully they won’t experience the cancers and birth defects of Vietnam’s agent orange victims.

#7 Comment By JdL On October 21, 2012 @ 7:01 am

I don’t understand the rationale for these burn pits. If trash is thoroughly incinerated in a furnace, that does oxidize and render harmless many noxious substances. But an open-air burn pit merely encourages those noxious substances to become airborne. Can someone help me understand this?

#8 Comment By Kelley Vlahos On October 21, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

JDL — KBR (former subsidiary of Halliburton) was in charge of waste removal, including the installation of incinerators on the big FOBs (forward operating bases) overseas. Their alleged inability to carry out these contracted duties in a timely, safe and adequate manner is now the subject of a class action lawsuit by many of the sick soldiers:

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#9 Comment By Michael Stokes On October 23, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

There is also another “agent orange” out there that causes similar problems.. In Iraq 2003-2005 some of you may remember a blue crystal fly killer called Blue Streak. It was mostly placed in cut out water bottles or spread around the floor of the tents and corners of the TOC..or other places.. This Chemical clearly states..DO NOT USE AROUND HUMAMS. Inform your VA rep if you where exposed to this chemical.

#10 Comment By Gayle Sudeck On December 15, 2012 @ 10:22 am

My husband, CWO4 Roy Sudeck just passed away from base of the tongue cancer. Roy served in Iraq @ Balad Air Base in 2003. One night his throat began to close up and he was given an injection. He also had a very visible outbreak of hives. He was airlifted to Landstuhl for evaluation. They were unable to discover what was wrong with him so he was sent stateside where no doctor could come up with a diagnosis. His condition improved once he was removed from Iraq so it was decided that he not return to the same theater and was sent to Kuwait to finish his year tour. In 2010, Roy was diagnosed with his cancer and I have always been of the belief he acquired his cancer from the burning pits at Balad. The DOD needs to stand up and accept responsibility for he and the others that have passed away since returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom.

#11 Comment By Peter J. Gebel, Jr. On March 10, 2013 @ 1:01 am

Dear Capt. Leroy and Rosie Torres,
I just saw your story on CBS News this Saturday evening. I truly believe I have information which may help you with your constrictive bronchiolitis. Please call me at (513) 738-3176 ASAP! The information about the treatment is free. It’s called intravenous hydrogen peroxide, and it’s been around since WW I. It was first written up in the British Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals. I have talked to the world expert, Dr. Velio Bocci, MD, PhD, of Siena, Italy twice in the past year. He was professor of physiology at the Univ. of Siena Medical School for 33 years, and he has performed this treatment since 1981, over a thousand times! It is completely safe, highly effective and very inexpensive. You can get an excellent explanation of the process on the following website: [20]. The website is that of Dr. Gordon Josephs, DO/HMD of Scottsdale, Arizona. On the homepage, in the upper RH corner, is an icon to click on to view the 27-minute video; it’s entitled: Introduction to Hydrogen Peroxide. Please watch it and then call me ASAP!
I took care of my father for 41 years, and in the process I learned a great deal about healthcare. One of the first things I learned is that allopathic (conventional) medicine doesn’t have all the answers! Believe me, hydrogen peroxide is one of the world’s best-kept secrets! I took Dr. Bocci’s IV protocol and converted it for use at home with a nebulizer. I cured myself of histoplasmosis (fungal infection in my lung) in less than a month. My doctor was stunned!
God bless your wife for her valiant efforts to help you! I, too, have a wonderful wife; she’s from the Philippines (Daraga, Albay), within sight of the Mayon Volcano. Please call me, Leroy, because I want to help you get well! I have lots of information, and it’s absolutely free!
Thank you and God bless you for your military service in Iraq. I’m a veteran myself (USAF Security Service). I’ll be 72 on March 11th, and I’m in excellent health, thanks in great measure to hydrogen peroxide! In the last few weeks I have significantly improved my original nebulized peroxide protocol, by combining it with an oxygen concentrator. I think you could benefit a great deal from it as well! Please call me!
Sincerely,
Pete Gebel, Jr.
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(513) 738-3176