Retired Sgt. 1st Class Frederick T. Slape, of Kempner, died Oct. 22, 2015, of an aggressive cancer.
Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas J. Kenney III, of Killeen, is fighting follicular lymphoma grade 3b cancer (non-Hodgkin lymphoma).
Dwan DeGraffe, an Army veteran from Killeen who was a contractor in Iraq, developed strange lesions, hair loss and difficulty breathing.
Karen Kaylor, Copperas Cove resident and former Department of the Army civilian who served in Afghanistan, developed asthma, minor COPD and sleep apnea.
They all believed their illnesses are related to exposure to toxic smoke while deployed or working as contractors in Southwest Asia.
The military, in many locations there, used open burn pits to destroy plastics, batteries, medical waste, ammunition and everything in between so it would not fall into enemy hands or impact the environment.
A photo Slape’s family shared with the Herald was taken from Slape’s living quarters in 2009 at a base in Afghanistan. The view from his door was a big, blackish-gray cloud of smoke burning 50 feet away.
It was not until February 2011 that DoD Instruction 4715.19, which covers the use of open-air burn pits in contingency operations, was published, requiring burn pits to be located far from the working and living quarters of deployed troops.
More than 3.7 million active-duty service members and veterans have been exposed to the toxic smoke from open burn pits in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror. Now, thousands of them are submitting claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs for illnesses they believe are related to their exposure to open burn pits.
The overriding problem these veterans face, however, is proving their illness is related to exposure. Without proof, they are unable to receive medical treatment for that illness from the VA.
DoD and the VA say the research that can link an illness to exposure will take decades to complete.
In addition, they might never have the evidence and full facts needed because DoD won’t say where burn pits were actually located or are in current use and has failed to record items burned.
The DoD instruction includes a list of what types of material may not be burned in the pits without approved justification, including such things as hazardous or medical waste, tires, batteries, plastics, munitions, petroleum, oils, lubricants, asbestos and foam tent material. However, those like DeGraffe and Kaylor who were tasked with disposing of waste in burn pits say that all of those materials and more were burned.
Lauren Price, a Navy veteran who organized a group called Veteran Warriors, said service members have sent her proof as recently as March 2018 that these materials are still being burned near where troops are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Herald on Aug. 17 requested a list of locations of burn pits currently in operation, the justification records for them and the health assessment reports required for all burn pits to be submitted every six months of operation. As of Dec. 21, the request is number 689 on the list being processed by U.S. Central Command — which is still processing requests from 2014.
So, where are we now?
Veterans turned to the VA for help, but help has been hard to come by and a number of veterans have been dying because of it. Nonprofit veteran organizations such as Burn Pits 360 and the Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans Association have lobbied in Congress for this to change, but as 2018 comes to a close, little has been done to ensure these veterans receive the care they need.
One of three bills initiated this year in Congress would address that.
The Protection for Veterans’ Burn Pit Exposure Act of 2018, H.R. 6582, proposed by Florida Republican Gus Bilirakis, is so far the only bill that will direct the VA to establish presumptions of service connection for illnesses associated with open burn pits. The bill was introduced July 26 and is currently being reviewed by the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
Presumption means that the VA would automatically treat certain illnesses and cancers in veterans who had been deployed to Southwest Asia as being connected to burn pits exposure. That means treatment and disability compensation for those veterans could begin before completion of medical research to definitively link the illness to exposure.
Until the bill becomes law, though, nothing is being done to ensure sick veterans can receive medical care from the VA without proof their illness is connected to their service, said Burn Pits 360 founder Leroy Torres.
In order to qualify for free health care from the VA, a veteran’s injury or illness must be connected to something related to their time of service as documented in their medical records. Only those veterans who have been rated as 100 percent disabled are able to receive free care for non-service-connected illnesses or injuries.
“The awareness has not had any impact toward legislation that actually helps veterans that are sick and dying right now,” Torres said. “Although there has been legislation introduced, it isn’t legislation that gives access to specialized health care, compensation or a presumptive for service connection.”
The other two bills currently on the docket deal with research funding and requiring the military to provide documentation of exposure by service members.
Senate 319, the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, added additional funding to establish a formal Airborne Hazards Open Burn Pit Center of Excellence at the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center in New Jersey to assist with research.
House Resolution 5671, the Burn Pits Accountability Act proposed by Hawaii Democrat Sen. Tulsi Gabbard, will “direct the Secretary of Defense to include in periodic health assessments, separation history and physical examinations, and other assessments an evaluation of whether a member of the Armed Forces has been exposed to open burn pits or toxic airborne chemicals, and for other purposes,” according to congress.gov.
There are some veterans who are able to prove their claims, however, according to Jessica Jacobsen, a VA spokeswoman from the VA’s Dallas Office of Public Affairs.
“From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2018, VA processed 11,581 VA disability compensation claims with at least one condition (in each of the 11,581 veterans’ claims) related to burn pit exposure,” she said. “Of those, 2,318 claims had at least one burn pit condition granted. During the same timeframe, VA processed 13,448,099 total claims. In other words ... burn pit-related claims accounted for 0.086 percent of claims processed.”
Nearly 44 percent of denied burn pit-related claims involved the absence of a medical diagnosis of the claimed condition, while nearly 54 percent of denied burn pit-related claims involved a lack of evidence establishing a connection to the veteran’s military service, Jacobsen added.
Retired Army Col. (Dr.) Patricia Hastings, said in a May 2018 interview that there is a latency for a lot of diseases. Because of this, it may be decades before a veteran becomes aware of a cancer or illness. Hastings is deputy chief consultant of Post Deployment Health Services for the VA.
That latency could explain the low number of claims being made for conditions veterans believe are caused by burn pit exposure.
Torres, however, said the biggest problem with establishing a connection between a veteran’s illness to exposure to open burn pits is a lack of research.
“There has not been any improvement in regards to research linking illnesses and cancers to exposure to burn pits,” he said. “(Burn Pits 360 is) planning on collaborating with health experts from the World Trade Center 9/11 Committee. We recently did a study regarding mortality rate with Augusta University. We will be partnering with other institutions for more research.”
According to cdc.gov, President Barrack Obama signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 into law on Jan. 2, 2011, which provides monitoring and treatment for specific health conditions that have been determined to be 9/11-related. The World Trade Center Health Program officially launched in July 2011, which provides the exact presumption certain illnesses and cancers are related to exposure to the World Trade Center towers 1 and 2 falling after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack in New York City.
Jacobsen said that once the funding to establish a formal Airborne Hazards Open Burn Pit Center of Excellence — $5 million — becomes available, however, the VA will be able to move forward with more cutting-edge research meant to establish the connection between veteran illnesses and burn pit exposure.
“This Center of Excellence collaborates with partners in academia, university medical centers and the Department of Defense,” she said. “In addition, VA’s Office of Research and Development has funded 37 active or recently completed research projects on aspects of lung disease and lung injury that may inform our understanding of effects of airborne hazards exposures in Southwest Asia and Afghanistan.”
The way ahead
While 2018 has shown some signs of progress, more will need to be done in the coming year, said Torres. Burn Pits 360 intends to work with Congress to introduce a lung disease legislation which will make Obliterative Brochiolitis a service-connected disability as a result of exposure to burn pits and introduce toxic brain injury as another result of exposure. They also intend to hold a two-day symposium on burn pits in Washington, and will post the dates and information on their website, burnpits360.org.
Jacobsen said that coming up in 2019, the VA expects increased collaboration with partners on airborne hazards.
“VA has contracted with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to provide another comprehensive review of respiratory health effects of airborne hazards in Southwest Asia,” she said. “The Academies’ report is expected in mid-2020. In addition to the NAM study, VA’s Office of Research and Development has made research into lung disease and lung injury a priority for funding for over the next five years and continues to promote research in this very important area.”
During fiscal year 2019, there will be 18 ongoing studies at a cost of $5.4 million, along with any new studies proposed for funding, Jacobsen added. One particular study — Pulmonary Health and Deployment to Southwest Asia and Afghanistan — will compare airborne exposures among military personnel who were deployed. Data collection for this study started in 2018 and is expected to last four years.
“This study, along with Million Veteran Program data, has great promise to add to the understanding of genetics of pulmonary disease after exposure to airborne pollutants,” she said. The Million Veteran Program is a VA program to collect data on burn pits from volunteer veterans.
“Furthermore, VA and DoD are planning an Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits summit for spring 2019, where strategic planning and gap analysis will be discussed based on the current state of the science.”
Where’s the logic?
While researchers are trying find out whether veterans’ ailments are related to their service near burn pits in Southwest Asia, the U.S. government continues to throw up roadblocks to getting the information.
Where were, are the burn pits?
There is still no official published list of where burn pits were located in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ailing veterans need documentation to prove a burn pit was at the base where they were stationed during the time they were stationed there, in order to prove to the VA they were exposed.
A private, veteran-owned website, VetsHQ, has tried to compile a list of every burn pit location in Iraq and Afghanistan through veteran input.
In an emailed response to a Herald inquiry, VetsHQ said they believe DoD has an actual list due to fact sheets put out by DoD in the past listing a number of locations, but that list has yet to be released.
Risky, but still in use
Department of Defense Instruction 4715.19 highlighted the possible health risks of burn pits smoke to service members in publications Feb. 15, 2011, and Oct. 6, 2017.
The instruction was mandated by Congress in 2009 when it passed the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.
Why are there still burn pits?
Instruction 4714.19 also requires DoD to submit justification letters and health assessment reports every six months to Congress for any burn pit in operation. The reports should include what is burned, how often it is burned, how toxic it is and how much were troops exposed. The Herald in August requested those letters and reports from Central Command for burn pits in current use, but Central Command is still working on Freedom of Information Act requests from 2014, and it could take years to receive the information.
Are health assessment reports being filed for burn pits in current use? If so, are researchers being given those reports? If not, how will this affect researchers’ ability to find a connection between exposure to open burn pits and various illnesses and cancers?
Escaping inspection requirements?
Many burn pits in Southwest Asia now are being operated by local nationals and therefore not subject to U.S. standards and reporting requirements.
No information about hazardous materials is required from these local nationals.
No information about how much and how often the burn pits are in use is required to come from them.
The U.S. government has declined to provide information about the number of troops stationed near burn pits, which have been used since 1990 in Southwest Asia.
How will this affect research and veterans abilities to get medical help and disability compensation?
By the numbers
Total number of veterans signed up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry as of Dec. 10, 2018: 163,935
Number of veterans in Temple Veterans Affairs Hospital region signed up for registry as of Dec. 19: 7,420
Source: VA Office of Public Affairs Dallas
Total number of veterans age 17 to 64 possibly eligible to sign up:
Bell County: 44,772
Coryell County: 11,518
Lampasas County: 2,754
Total number of veterans within the three counties (all ages): 71,656
Total number of Gulf War Era veterans in Texas: 749,633
Source: Texas Veterans Commission
Were you affected?
If you believe you may have been affected by exposure to airborne toxins and open burn pits while deployed during the Gulf War Era and are willing to tell your story, please contact reporter David A. Bryant at email@example.com or 254-501-7554. Please ensure you provide your name and a reliable means of contacting you.