Toxic burn pit exposure: Afghanistan and Iraq veterans’ hidden cost of war

As our 20 years of war in Afghanistan draws to a close, we must never forget the more than 2000 U.S. service members who died there—nor the 20,000 who suffered injuries. Similarly, more than 4400 U.S. service members died in Iraq and nearly 32,000 suffered injuries.

Many of those who served in those theaters returned home wearing the scars of battle—loss of limbs, disfigurement, loss of sight, and other physical injuries. Then there are the other injuries that are not quite as obvious—the emotional and mental injuries that reveal themselves as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).

However, a lesser-known category of injuries exists that Congress must acknowledge and address immediately. These injuries result from exposure to burn pits that existed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

Burn pits are sites used to burn various materials ranging from garbage, human waste, chemicals, and paint to lubricants, plastics, ordnance, and medical waste—all often ignited by jet fuel. Burn pits were used because a more appropriate facility to dispose of these materials was simply not available.

Unfortunately, what has resulted from these burn pits has been referred to as the Agent Orange of our time in Southwest Asia. We are seeing a wave of rare cancers and other illnesses suffered by those who have served there and became exposed to the toxins from the burn pits. Some veterans, long after their service in uniform, have already died from these illnesses.

For example, an Army soldier deployed to Balad Air Base in Iraq died at 36 from pancreatic cancer. The average age of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is 70.  According to the soldier’s spouse, the soldier kept a journal and wrote in detail about the burn pits that were more than ten acres in size and burned 100 to 200 tons of waste per day. The soldier noted that filters were cleaned every couple of days but resembled black soup when they were removed.

Of the more than 2.5 million service members who served in the War on Terror, 43,000 have filed claims with the Veterans Administration (VA) for cancer, and more than 780,000 have filed a claim for respiratory conditions.

Since these illnesses often do not manifest until years after discharge, many veterans struggle to obtain health care and benefits from the VA in connection with these conditions.

Some legislators have recognized the exposure-recognition barrier preventing many veterans from getting VA health care and benefits for illnesses and diseases related to exposure to burn pits. Earlier this year, Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation to address the problem.

Mr. Sullivan said he and Mr. Manchin are trying to avoid a repeat of the tragic and prolonged delay in relief experienced by many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Their legislation does away with the unreasonable burden on veterans to prove they were exposed to burn pits while serving at an installation where the pits were used. Similar legislation proposed in previous years has failed.

The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) strongly supports the legislation proposed by Sens. Sullivan and Manchin, along with many other veterans support organizations. This legislation would direct the VA to concede exposure for service members who deployed to Southwest Asia. Only 22 percent of claims by servicemembers who were exposed to burn pits are approved by the VA. Proving exposure is a very difficult task.

Clearly, it’s time for our country to recognize and acknowledge the impact of toxic exposure as a cost of war.

Another essential part of this effort is addressed in bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) with a companion bill by Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.). This bill provides for an essential expansion of health care access for servicemembers who experienced toxic exposures in Southwest Asia. It also would require the VA to use new scientific evidence to establish whether some health problems are connected to toxic exposure and expand training on toxic exposure issues for VA health care personnel.

MOAA has made the burn pits/toxic exposure issue one of its top three advocacy issues for this year. MOAA feels the time has come for action on this issue—not for more studies. Those who serve their country and go into harm’s way should be provided the care and benefits they deserve.            

The toxic exposure issue deserves to be a top issue for our congressional leaders. Our veterans deserve nothing less.

• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral who served on active duty for 31 years. He is a member of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) board of directors. He is also the author of “The Secret Sauce for Organizational Success: Communications and Leadership on the Same Page.”

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