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The New Agent Orange?

The VA resists a public registry for vets exposed to toxic open-air burn pits.

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.

TAC has followed this issue since October 2009. Today, Rosie heads Burn Pits 360, 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.

LeRoy Torres was stationed in Iraq at Joint Base Balad, which hosted the biggest pit in the theater, incinerating an estimated 147 tons of waste a day as of 2008. “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 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 and depleted immune systems 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, and have put forth a bill in Congress that would create the first registry 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 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, Coy also cast doubt on the burn pits as a major contributor to veterans’ illnesses, pointing to a recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) study 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 unearthed by Wired 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), says he understands that the registries are not a scientific tool nor always effective at proper outreach, pointing to the Gulf War Illness registry, 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. 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.



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