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Veterans of the Burn Pits

Sgt. Daniel Meyer doesn’t need anyone to tell him that the poison he sucked into his lungs at the Joint Base Balad burn pit in Iraq is to blame for the fact that he’s now a 29-year-old trapped in an old man’s body. But it is helpful that doctors have made it official in his medical records. Meyer has Bronchiolitis Obliterans (as bad as it sounds [1]), for which he is on four liters of oxygen a day, as well as fatty tumors of the legs, which keep him wheelchair-bound. His service connection affords him generous VA home health care, since he can no longer leave the house.

Even Meyer, featured recently in the Washington Post [2], admits his case was so severe that the VA could not deny him. But what about all the men and women who came home with respiratory problems, perhaps not quite as severe but debilitating nonetheless, who don’t know where they got it or where to turn for a proper diagnosis? The VA and Department of Defense have yet to fully recognize that toxic exposures—primarily from the burn pits on all major U.S bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from heavy metals in the sand and dust [3]—are to blame.

Thanks to persistent lobbying and more than one sympathetic representative, Congress passed legislation [4] in 2009 to put tough new regulations on burn pit use in the field including a general prohibition, with giant incinerators replacing the dozens of giant pits operating in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. But it didn’t quite go as planned.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has found that millions of taxpayer dollars have gone into putting incinerators into the field that are either not working or not being used. It found that incinerators brought into Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Bases Salerno [5] and Sharana [6] cost taxpayers $11 million, but were not being used because contractors did not install them properly. To add insult to injury, reports indicate that once Sharana was shut down, the inoperable incinerators were likely broken down into scrap.

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At Camp Leatherneck, despite the military spending $11.5 million to put four incinerators on the base, “we observed several truckloads of solid waste being delivered to open-air burn pits,” wrote SIGAR John Sopko in July 2013 (page 35) [7]. It turns out the incinerators were not being used. This unduly exposed the estimated 13,500 Marines and soldiers who lived there, he wrote, “to toxic smoke from burning solid waste each day,” which “increases the long-term health risks for camp personnel, including reduced lung function and exacerbated chronic illnesses, ranging from asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

Veterans advocates who have been working on the burn pit issue for several years now are hoping that another law, passed by Congress in January 2013, will force the VA and DoD’s hands by establishing the VA Open Air Burn Pit Registry [8]. The registry would reach out to the untold number of ill men and women suffering from possible toxic exposures overseas. It was mandated to launch a year after the bill was signed, but so far, and with very little explanation, the registry has yet to materialize.

“They don’t want to admit there is a burn pit problem and putting out the registry is admitting there is a burn pit problem so this is just another way of putting it off,” charges Meyer, who has been unable to walk for two and a half years. He spent his first tour in Balad in 2007. One of his jobs on the first tour was shooting birds with a BB gun around the burn pit, wholly unprotected from the fumes. His barracks were adjacent to the pit. On his second tour, at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, his barracks were across the street from the pit.

It’s estimated that at its peak, [9] the pit at Balad burned 250 tons of unregulated hazardous materials, batteries, tires, food, medical waste, and whatever else—a day. And they used jet fuel to burn it, Meyer told TAC.

Vets began wondering publicly about their unexplained symptoms—particularly respiratory problems—as far back as 2009. Burn Pits 360 [10] is a nonprofit run by Rosie Lopez-Torres for her husband Sgt. LeRoy Torres, 40, who was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis after returning from Iraq (great profiles of Meyer and Torres here [11]). Like Meyer, he is severely restricted and stays inside on oxygen most of the time. Lopez-Torres told TAC this week that the informal registry at BurnPits360.org [12] has gathered information from 3,000 veterans who say they are sick.

“I think there is going to be a pretty shocking and a sizable number” if the VA’s registry does what it’s supposed to do, says Nick McCormick, legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which has been lobbying for the registry to start. “The registry will quantify the numbers.”

But where is it?

“The delay is deeply concerning, particularly when similar registries exist in the United States government. The lack of urgency and communication from the VA is even more troubling,” wrote Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who sponsored the registry legislation and shepherded it into passage after two years of effort. They sent their letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in March in hopes of getting a firm launch date.

Their letter, which emphasized Corker’s “deep concern with the VA’s failure to diligently and expeditiously implement” the registry, according to his spokesperson, never got a response. Nor did the VA return multiple phone calls and e-mails from TAC for comment. The department web page designated for “VA’s Action Plan: Burn Pits and Airborne Hazards,” simply states:

The registry has been delayed. VA needs extra time to design and test the system to ensure functionality, data security and accessibility. Once a firm launch date is established, we will announce how to sign up for it.

It is no secret the department had initially resisted the registry. In a story TAC published in October 2012 [13], VA Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity Curtis Coy was not only quoted casting doubt on the burn pit connection to post-deployment illnesses, but said a registry would be unhelpful. “Health registries can only produce very limited and possibly skewed results,” he told Congress.

Despite the hesitation, however, publicly available information indicates that the VA is indeed moving forward. It put out a working draft [14] of the questionnaire dated March 18. At 27 pages long, the draft questionnaire canvasses in detail veterans’ deployment, home, and health backgrounds, assessing different exposures and current health needs. It is not restricted to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is also open to veterans who were stationed in Djibouti, Africa after September 11, 2001, and Southwest Asia after 1990, as well as veterans of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991.

Advocates who spoke with TAC said they were brought in early in the development phase for feedback, and were initially hopeful of the direction it was taking.

Daniel Sullivan brother, Sgt. Thomas Joseph Sullivan, died at 30 following a long bout with chronic illness upon returning from Iraq, leading Daniel to found the Sergeant Sullivan Center [15] with his parents. Thomas had been suffering from “health complications that included chronic widespread pain, swelling, severe inflammatory bowel issues, and side effects of pharmaceutical treatments,” when he passed away in February 2009. A postmortem found that Thomas had widespread organ and cardiovascular degeneration that had not been previously diagnosed. The Sergeant Sullivan Center advocates for the recognition of toxic exposures and unexplained illnesses, and has been one of the groups in contact with the VA over the registry.

“They asked for feedback and we gave it to them,” Sullivan told TAC. He said that he and Torres participated in an online demo of the aforementioned questionnaire. “It looked like good first steps,” though the subsequent delay and recent silence about the rollout have been “disconcerting.” Sullivan asked a VA official at a recent veterans’ liaison meeting this week about the timeline. “Apparently they’re testing the IT and that might go on for another month,” he said. “It’s impossible to know anything more right now.”

Torres isn’t as sanguine. “I have a lot of mixed emotions about it,” she said. “I know [the registry] is not something they would have done willingly… our organization manages a registry for less than $300 a year, why can’t they do this? What’s the hold up?” “People are dying in the meantime,” she said. She hears from widows fairly regularly: “They are in their 20s—widows in their 20s.”

As though to prove her point, an April 23 headline on The Marine Corps Times [16] announced that Marine Sean Terry’s family is blaming his death on esophageal cancer he got from the burn pits during his service. In fact, a doctor’s letter to his family said “there is more than a 50 percent likelihood” the exposures overseas were to blame, according to the family. He was a 33-year-old father of three.

Sgt. Daniel Meyer [17]

Sgt. Daniel Meyer

Advocates like Meyer worry that the VA is putting off its responsibility because—like Agent Orange among Vietnam veterans—the exposure and resulting injuries represent a tremendous liability for the government. “They told us (the burn pits) weren’t so bad, but obviously that wasn’t the case,” he said. McCormick said veterans have learned the lessons of Vietnam, and groups like IAVA won’t quit until the registry is up and running, reaching everyone it needs to. If done right, the registry will help veterans get proper care and inform the VA where the greatest needs are.

“There is a sense of urgency to make sure the VA is up to speed on this,” he said. Especially as “the war in Afghanistan winds down, we want to make sure that no one gets left behind, no one is forgotten.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter [18].

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Veterans of the Burn Pits"

#1 Comment By WillW On May 2, 2014 @ 9:58 am

They said open burn pits “weren’t that bad?” Someone was able to say that with a straight face? One assumes whoever said it had office/quarters very far away from the open burn put! Shameful.

#2 Comment By Lorraine Barlett On May 2, 2014 @ 11:36 am

And don’t forget the depleted uranium. If it’s giving Iraqi and Afghan children birth defects, the GIs (and their progeny) won’t be far behind. The U.S. will indeed reap a bitter harvest for the seed sown in the middle east over the past dozen years.

#3 Comment By AnotherBeliever On May 2, 2014 @ 11:44 am

They have insisted for years that there is no proven nexus between breathing problems and exposures to burn pits, sand storms, dust, and other contaminants (including possible exposed asbestos in Saddam Hussein era structures we lived and worked inside.) They insist that asthma or COPD or what have you developed independently, or due to other factors like smoking or weight gain.

I would be surprised if this changed anytime in the next decade. But I’m glad that at least the people bad off enough to need oxygen tanks are getting treatment. The priority naturally should go to them and people with problems like traumatic brain injury. The rest of us will patiently chip away at Congress and the VA. They are bound to come around sooner or later.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On May 2, 2014 @ 11:44 am

I guess we were also subjecting the local citizenry to all those toxins as well.

Good that we saved them from Saddam.

#5 Comment By SDS On May 2, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

One more instance of the Federal government treating the citizens as disposable items….
It’s easy to call for patriotism and sacrifice; but when you’ve given your all; well, too bad….you’re on your own…NEXT!

#6 Comment By Jim Bovard On May 2, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

Great piece, Kelley! It is mystifying why anyone still trusts the govt. to give a patooie about their health…

#7 Comment By cornel lencar On May 2, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

Why is VA beating around the bush? There are very comprehensive studies from the first Iraq war showing the connection between exposure to open burn pits and respiratory problems.

#8 Comment By Jon Basil Utley On May 3, 2014 @ 12:33 am

Kelley–What superb journalism, there’s a lot of hard work which goes into researching and writing up a report like this. Surely it’s not the kind of news our war wanters in Washington wish to have known about as they try to instigate more military actions. How many brave men and women have had their lives ruined? I would only add that one think also of all the Iraqis and Afghans who must also have suffered from these chemicals and hate America even more. The report adds credence to the many unexplained health issues from the First Gulf War. I would also refer readers to your other excellent report, The Military’s Prescription Drug Addiction, on how so many wounded vets are shelved with constant prescriptions for a mix of anti-depressants and pain killers.

#9 Comment By balconesfault On May 3, 2014 @ 12:48 am

@Jim Bovard It is mystifying why anyone still trusts the govt. to give a patooie about their health…

Not mystifying. I grew up with military healthcare, and it was phenomenally good, and in their later years the physicians at BAMC in San Antonio provided my parents with great care.

VA is suffering because even with budget increases over the last few years, the numbers of aging vets in the system along with the HUGE number of very severe cases returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have swamped their resources. I have no doubt that VA personnel care, but adding competent staff and expanding facilities in the face of a Congress resistant to government spending isn’t easy.

Meanwhile, the cause of the problems described above wasn’t so much a government problem – as a lack of government problem. Clearly base commanders were making decisions on disposal that went against their directives, which means the Chain of Command broke down and base personnel acted on expediency. Had hard and fast rules from the top been enforced this problem would have been much smaller.

Second problem is the non-functional incinerators. Thank the outsourcing of entire programs to contractors, many of whom got their contracts thanks to positioning with the last Administration, rather than demonstrated competencies. A more sane system might have allowed combustion experts in the EPA to have overseen the technology selection and implementation, but that would have required “growing government” with less contracting dollars to spread around to the politically well connected.

Our government still has lots of experts on combustion technologies, which is remarkable after the Bush Administration tried to run a lot of the best experts off by putting them under the management of Heritage vetted appointees who thought the EPA should be eliminated. Had we used people who knew about combustion of hazardous materials to run these programs we may have avoided many of these problems by actually having functional incinerators in the field.

#10 Comment By Jude On May 3, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

And many think this country needs less government and less regulation?

Just wait and see what health problems will be caused by Fracking. Imagine what conditions would be like for coal miners without government regulations? And speaking of coal, let’s save the industry money by allowing dumping of waste products into rivers. The cost savings would obviously be passed on to customers.

#11 Comment By Winston On May 4, 2014 @ 3:15 am

This behavior is norm not exception as I found out talking with a vet, who was then a friend’s boyfriend.

Friend’s boyfriend said he was touching nuke material without protection, now his immune system is destroyed. Maybe because the officer corps thinks these people are disposable. You have to be vet for 20 years to get a pension;but most who join leave before that.

#12 Comment By Benjamin P. Glaser On May 4, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

Folks should hang for this.

#13 Comment By John E_o On May 4, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

Is anyone here really surprised by any of this?

Anyone?

#14 Comment By hp On May 5, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

Well what have those disabled malingerers done for us lately?

Signed,
Congress

#15 Comment By Sullly On May 6, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

Burn pits were idiotic. At a large airfield in Afghanistan, they’d keep burning no matter what, even to the point of inhibiting visibility and endangering aircrews. Even with that immediate consequence they still wouldn’t stop. And of course the real chickens have come home to roost.

#16 Comment By Don Smith On May 12, 2014 @ 7:20 am

All the while GW Bush sits at his easel and cranks out junior high art class paintings completely oblivious to the hell he created when he bought into the neocon’s PNAC playbook.

While men and women who served in Iraq are fighting for survival Bill Kristol is given a spot on This Week to continue his warmongering rants.

#17 Comment By John W On June 24, 2014 @ 11:30 am

I was at Balad AB/LSA Anaconda in 2008 and the burn pit was cranking out like a dragon. The housing area we lived in was called “H6” and it was only a few hundred yards away from the pit. On most days, a lovely Iraqi breeze would blow the smoke into the compound. I’m a runner and when I wasn’t on duty, I was running on the base. I don’t think I could ever forget the horrid smell of the burn pit as I would run around H6. We would drive by the pit every day to and from work and we could see these poor contractors (foreign nationals) shoveling and bulldozing piles and piles of who knows what into the pits. All politics aside, someone should be answering for this and IMO its the contract companies (Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR) and those that allowed his to happen.

#18 Comment By Hexexis On July 11, 2014 @ 9:06 am

“incinerators into the field that are either not working or not being used”

Wonder whether locals employed to install these incinerators … Just asking, because a Marine told me that when commanders inside Green Zone got into their “musical campsites” (pull up stakes here; put down over there) modes, among the requirements for digging those burn pits (part of the “No Potato Chip Bag Left Behind” program) was that local Iraqis had to do the job. This Marine’s task on those occasions was approving locals’ entry on to the grounds. (This was an all-day affair itself.)

Evidently, defending our freedoms involved unofficial mobility competitions among commanders. & I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a difference in cognitive ability betw. the higher-ups that fought the war & those that treat the warriors. Sounds like DVA would prefer a few burn pits of its own; into which it could drop a few Sgt. Meyerses.

#19 Comment By Fred Estill On February 11, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

I was a civilian contractor assigned to Balad AB during 2003-2004. My office was near the burn pits. There wasn’t a day we didn’t have to inhale the smoke from the pits. It even extended to our living quarters when the wind blew that way. I used to hold my breath when I’d pass the pits on my way to work each day because of the smell. Now I have been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and have had to have major surgery to remove it. Only months earlier I was diagnosed with skin cancer of the ear and had to have part of my ear removed. And now that cancer has returned and I may have to have my ear removed. The surgeon stated the rare form of cancer had formed on what was a 7 in jel filled type bag which was coming from my appendix. He said the bag had most likely formed about 7 years ago and continued to grow and turn cancerous. It’s called a Mucocele and is rare. I truely believe this was the result of months of inhaling the smoke/fumes from the burn pits at Balad AB, Iraq.