Open burn pits have been used to destroy everything from trash to human waste and batteries in Southwest Asia since U.S. troops first arrived in the Middle East for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
Since then, millions of service members deployed to areas such as Kuwait, Djibouti, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have been exposed to the toxic smoke coming from these burn pits.
And many veterans who served in those countries have been coming down with strange illnesses, such as rare cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis they believe are related to exposure to open burn pits and other airborne hazards such as smoke from oil fires and sandstorms. But they are having difficulty getting treatment and disability pay for those illnesses because scientists say research that could prove the link between airborne toxin exposure and their diseases will take years. Hampering that research is that the Department of Defense did not keep records of materials burned, nor did they perform thorough air quality studies, according to findings at a congressional hearing June 7 in Washington, D.C.
And until research is complete, many of those sick veterans are paying hefty medical bills out of pocket. Others are dying from cancers while in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.
In the three counties surrounding Fort Hood, nearly 60,000 veterans could have been exposed to the health-altering chemicals contained in smoke from those burn pits during deployments to Southwest Asia, according to the Texas Veterans Commission. That does not include the thousands of active-duty troops currently stationed at Fort Hood who have been exposed.
The Department of Veterans Affairs was mandated by Congress to create the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in order to provide a long-term research program to potentially link illnesses with exposure. The registry became available in 2014. There were 4,500 veterans within a 50-mile radius of the Temple VA Medical Center signed up for it as of last May. The Herald reached out to the candidates running for U.S. Congressional seats this year to find out what plans they have to address the issues these veterans are facing.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas
The practice of using burn pits was troubling because far too many veterans are reporting health issues that could be connected to exposure to the toxic smoke from those burn pits, the Senate incumbent said.
“I think we need to understand what damage may have been done by burn pits,” Cruz said. “On the Senate Armed Services Committee, I was part of adding the legislation to improve the registry to understand who’s been exposed to burn pits,” he said.
“First of all, we need to understand who is at risk.”
Cruz said he also co-sponsored legislation that will focus on gathering the necessary data to connect the health problems caused by exposure to burn pits.
“We need to understand that and ... proactively begin providing treatment and care to those veterans,” he said. “There’s no doubt we need better information. We need to understand better who was exposed to what and what the risks are. There may well be different risks from different burn pits, depending on what was being burned. It may be impossible to fully recreate everything that happened in the field, but to the extent we can, we need to get the best information possible so we can provide the treatment we need to provide to our veterans.”
When it comes to giving sick veterans the presumption their illness may be linked to burn pit exposure, it may well take an act of Congress to require the VA give that presumption until the full research is done, Cruz said.
“I think we need to start with understanding how many veterans were exposed to this. I don’t think Congress should be ahead of the medical science, but what is paramount is that our veterans are getting the care they need and deserve,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons also why I’ve been pressing hard at the VA for reform to, A: increase accountability throughout the VA; we’ve seen positive steps in the last two years with legislation passed that I supported actively that gives VA leadership the ability to terminate VA employees who are wrongfully denying care to our veterans.”
“Secondly, a critical tool for improving the VA is choice — and expanding veterans’ choice,” he said. “It should be every veteran’s right to choose their own doctor.” This past summer, Congress passed legislation expanding the Veteran’s Choice Program, Cruz said.
Neal Dikeman, Libertarian candidate
According to Dikeman, the issues of whether sick veterans should be receiving care is one that never should have become an issue at all.
“Libertarians in general, myself included, believe in a strong military,” he said. “We also believe in limited interventions in foreign wars. But I believe that when we send our soldiers into harm’s way, we are obligated to take care of them when they come home. That’s part of the deal.”
Dikeman said that unlike a corporate environment, where an employee can expect a safe environment, the military is inherently dangerous regardless of where the service member is located.
“Whether or not a soldier’s injury or illness is from enemy fire or the environment they served in, the deal is the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the fault, you take care of it. It’s not a hard decision. I don’t care what made them sick, they should be taken care of.”
Dikeman added that waiting on research to be complete to prove a link between a veteran’s illness to exposure goes against the promise made to those veterans that they would be taken care of after completing their service. DoD and the VA should be worrying more about taking care of the soldiers and veterans now and worrying about officially linking the illness to exposure later.
“The job of Congress is oversight,” he said. “It should just take legislators making a quick call to DoD and the VA and saying, ‘I don’t ever want to see another story in the newspaper about delays in care for our troops. If you want oversight, that’s how you get it.’”
Dikeman also stated that DoD is “shooting themselves in the foot” when it comes to not caring for sick veterans who believe their illness is related to their combat deployments because it has a direct affect on recruiting.
“What young man or woman would want to join when they read these stories showing that they won’t be taken care of if something happens to them while they serve?” he said.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso
O’Rourke, U.S. Representative for Texas District 16, said the nation owes every veteran care and support that’s worthy of their service and sacrifice to our country — including those affected by exposure to burn pits.
“It took our country more than 40 years to acknowledge our responsibility to care for those who were exposed to Agent Orange, and we can’t repeat that history with burn pits or other toxic exposures,” he said. “We have to urgently address care for those who have already been exposed and are suffering, and we must take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.”
O’Rourke currently serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to address toxic exposure and has supported legislation to enhance accountability to veterans affected by this issue, he said.
“I have co-sponsored the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, provisions of which were signed into law recently by President (Donald) Trump. This law creates a Center of Excellence to help strengthen research on the effects of burn pit exposure,” O’Rourke said. “We must ensure the work done through this law moves forward as quickly as possible. Veterans who are sick due to exposure to toxins from burn pits should not have to wait decades for care or benefits.”
O’Rourke also co-sponsored the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which would require more accountability on the part of DoD and VA to capture and record possible exposures to toxins. The act will help promote a deeper understanding of service members’ exposure to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals while on active duty and improve approaches to treatment for these service-related ailments, he said. It would also provide an opportunity to strengthen the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to help enhance information available to decision-makers and the VA about risk of exposure.
“We must continue to listen to our veterans. As the Congressman for El Paso, I hold quarterly town halls to hear directly from veterans in our community,” O’Rourke said. “Veterans at these town halls have provided recommendations that I’ve taken to Congress and turned into legislation. This includes the issue of toxic exposure. In my experience, providing spaces for veterans to share their thoughts has been the most effective way to understand what is happening at the VA and what veterans need. As members of Congress, we should make it easier for veterans to come forward with their needs, sincerely listen to what they are telling us and be transparent and accountable with our progress.”
U.S. House District 25
Julie Oliver, Democrat candidate
Oliver said that healthcare is the reason she is running for Congress.
“My dad’s a veteran — I know that veterans don’t stop serving when they come home,” she said. “I’m very grateful for the advocacy and leadership of the veterans who testified about their health problems stemming from haphazard burning in Iraq. We have to act urgently to care for those who have been exposed to burn pits, and we have to stop this from happening going forward.”
Oliver added that what veterans don’t need right now is lip service. They need action and Congressional oversight to ensure accountability and transparency at the VA.
“In Congress, it’s not words that matter — it’s the votes,” she said. “We need to pass legislation that ensures that every health assessment for service members and veterans includes an evaluation of burn pit exposure.”
“I have 15 years of experience in healthcare finance and am committed to addressing America’s healthcare crisis broadly, and especially as it pertains to veterans, and the ability for veterans to get their disability claims met in a more timely fashion,” she said. “And because I’m not taking any PAC money — whether it’s from for-profit insurance corporations or defense contractors — you will know that my priorities in Congress are with the people of this district, not to corporations, contractors and special interests.”
Oliver likened the current situation veterans are facing to care for veterans exposed to Agent Orange during Vietnam, where it took decades to finally provide care for those who were ill from exposure.
“We know what was burned (in open burn pits) because of the testimony under oath by the veterans who actually served in (Southwest Asia) — chemicals, plastics and assorted waste,” she said. “If DoD will not conduct transparent studies in the areas where the burn pits are in use, Congress can compel them to do so and we can work with partners in the region to get the data we need — but we currently do not have a Congress interested in exercising its oversight function. We can’t let this be slow-walked, so we need new leadership.”
Oliver said she is committed to oversight on the burn pit issue to ensure Congress honors its commitments to the women and men who put their lives on the line for the nation. She said she also believes studies already conducted by organizations such as the CDC, WHO and firefighter researchers should be included in any legislation Congress might pass to ensure every health assessment for service members and veterans includes an evaluation of burn-pit exposure.
“Ensuring that veterans can get their disability claims met in a more timely fashion and expanding services and facilities at the VA in Temple so that it can more readily serve those in Killeen is a top priority,” she said. “I won’t ask the VA to tell us how the VA is doing — I’m going to trust veterans to tell us how the VA is doing. When elected, I’ll conduct an annual survey, hold regular veterans town halls at home in the district and I will use the ideas we receive to improve the VA from the ground up.”
Oliver said she believes Congress should dictate to the VA that it must give a veteran the presumption that their burn-pit related illness could be linked to their exposure to open burn pits.
“Veterans deserve accountability and transparency in how decisions at the VA are being made. Those decisions impact the care and resources that they’ve earned,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin
The current incumbent for U.S. House District 25 said he isn’t sure Congress should require the VA to give a veteran the presumption that their illness is related to exposure to open burn pits while deployed.
“The VA must conduct their due diligence in determining whether a certain illness is service-connected and related to burn pit exposure, which Congress has taken steps to empower the administration to do so,” Williams said. “To make a presumption without complete evidence would not be in the best interest of veterans.”
Williams said he does believe the VA needs to work at completing the necessary research to make the connection between exposure and illnesses, however.
“I would urge the VA to thoroughly, and as expeditiously as possible, complete their research and analysis relating to the service connection of illnesses due to burn pit exposure. New legislation may not be necessary at this time, but I would entertain (VA) Secretary (Robert) Wilkie’s requests for additional funding and resources, as he sees fit, to complete this.”
Williams said the recently-passed Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act will provide funding and resources for the VA to research the possible negative health impacts of exposure to burn pits and that the Department of Defense and the VA should both be openly transparent with any information that may be helpful in the research.
“I encourage the VA to use any information available to them, whether that is from the (Center for Disease Control), (World Health Organization) or otherwise to make the best determination of what service-connected illnesses are related to burn pits,” he said. “Congress and the VA have taken a good step forward in addressing potential burn pit exposure illnesses. However, there is always more that we can do and I am committed to seeing this issue through.”
The Congressman added that he is confident the VA is in capable hands under Wilkie and that giving Congress the authority to determine presumption of a service-connected injury would be a disservice to veterans and “further complicate an already overly-bureaucratic system.”
“Veterans need more access, choice and control over their healthcare,” he said. “Less bureaucrats and more medical professionals is necessary within the Veterans Health Administration. Recent legislation signed into law, such as the VA Mission Act, mandates effective change within the agency. In Congress, I will continue to work hard to make our veterans a top priority by ensuring the Department has the budget to serve the needs of veterans and that the care they receive is of the highest quality.”
U.S. House District 31
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock
Carter, the current incumbent for U.S. House District 31, is the chairman of Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Appropriations and said his committee’s responsibility is to fund additional research opportunities so that the committees crafting VA related legislation can make informed decisions regarding open burn pits.
“In this year’s funding bill, I included $10 million for clinical research into veterans exposed to open burn pits while serving,” he said. “This research will be handled by the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence and we hope that it will help solidify decisions to be made into open burn pit legislation.”
Carter said the health effects of exposure to open burn pits is an issue close to home in the local community because of the large number of veterans who live in Central Texas who had served in the Global War on Terror.
“While the links between open burn pits and health problems haven’t been entirely established yet, I remain committed to funding the critical medical research necessary that is required to establish a scientifically-proven link and potentially get veterans covered,” he said. “In last year’s funding bill, I included $5 million to improve the Burn Pit Registry to make sure it’s an effective tool for researchers to use to continue looking into the link and make sure that veterans could eventually claim benefits and get coverage. I understand that veterans need Congress to work quickly to address this issue, and I’m committed to adequately funding the research necessary.”
The Burn Pit Registry is a critical tool in researchers’ data, Carter said, and veterans who may have been exposed need to sign up for the registry. Evaluating veterans who are experiencing symptoms potentially linked to open burn pits — tracking the locations where they served, time of deployments, symptoms and more — will give researchers an additional source of data to address the issue.
“A fundamental key to scientific research is looking at all of the data from many trusted sources. The key researcher for this issue is the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence and it is currently run by the VA, that’s why it’s important that we fund this critical research center,” he said. “Our veterans served our country honorably and they deserve the benefits they’ve earned. Legislation like that would have to start within the authorizing committee, not the appropriations committee where I serve. That’s why it’s crucial that I fund the research so our authorizing committees have the data to take action.”
Carter said the language included in the funding legislation helped strengthen research opportunities for the Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence, which is a good step forward for veterans.
“I represent the largest population of veterans of any district in Texas, and I think the rest of Congress is still in need of the research to prove this potential link,” he said. “That’s why I’m focused on making sure that research is funded so I can advocate from a position of facts and Congress can address the issue.”
As the recently named chairman of the VA Appropriations Committee, Carter recently funded the VA at the largest level in the history of the agency, he said, but the funding comes with additional oversight.
MJ Hegar, Democrat candidate
Hegar, a veteran of Afghanistan and a former Air Force combat pilot, said the issue of health concerns veterans are facing due to exposure to open burn pits is one that hits close to home for her.
“I believe every veteran returning home after serving our country should have access to high quality, affordable medical care, and that the only qualification for someone seeking access to VA resources for long-term health problems should be that they served,” she said. “More specifically, I think Congress needs to make specific funding available to the VA for veterans exposed to burn pits, so they can receive care before the research process to determine a link between exposure and illness is concluded. Too often, the burden of proof is put on the veteran and his or her family. I believe the VA should provide care for all of the health ailments veterans struggle with, including ones likely related to burn pit exposure.”
Hegar said that despite thousands of reports from ailing veterans that their health problems are likely related to burn pit exposure during deployment to Southwest Asia, the VA is not acknowledging that. Research that impacts the health of veterans and the care they are able to receive needs to be properly funded at the outset.
“Researchers also have a hard time collecting evidence because there is not a record of what was burned, nor what kind of chemicals they might have released into the air,” she said. “Congress should require the VA use all relevant and available research to help veterans get the proper documentation for their illnesses, and the care and compensation they deserve.”
Hegar said Congress should absolutely enact legislation that would allow sick veterans a presumption their illness is related to burn pit exposure in order to care for them until the research is complete.
“Our veterans have sacrificed for our country, and we must keep our promises to take care of them when they return home,” she said. “Congress should first prioritize the care of all veterans and not deny care just because there is not a defined link between certain illnesses and burn pits, and then enact legislation based on the fully-researched impact of burn pits on veterans’ health. This documentation will help veterans who currently are not able to receive disability payments related to physical impairments that are likely a result of burn pit exposure.”
Hegar said the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act passed by Congress during the summer was a good start, but is not enough to provide the immediate care veterans need.
“Veterans need more than this — the registry is based on an insufficient questionnaire with an optional health exam that very few veterans opt to take,” she said. “It also doesn’t solve the problem that the burden of proof is on the sick veteran; Often, a family does not have the bandwidth to coordinate treatment, much less also provide extensive documentation to the VA proving it was a result of exposure to toxic chemicals from burn pits.”
Hegar said she believes Congress has the power to direct the VA to presume a link between certain illnesses and exposure so veterans can receive disability benefits for illnesses such as respiratory issues caused by burn pit exposure.
“We need to make sure the VA is providing care while we fund research that can help the VA know which illnesses are a result of burn pit exposure,” she said.
Bell County: Top office could offer support for exposed veterans
While county judges do not have the clout to push through legislation concerning veteran health issues as Congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., they do have the ability to contact those legislators on behalf of their constituents. As Bell County has one of the largest concentrations of veterans in the state — falling in the top 10 counties with high numbers of veterans, according to va.gov — the Herald reached out to the candidates for the top county position, Bell County judge, to get their thoughts on the subject of veteran health issues caused by exposure to open burn pits and other airborne hazards while deployed to Southwest Asia.
David Blackburn, Republican candidate
“Our veterans deserve the best possible care we can provide. I understand that Bell County offers an ‘ombudsman’ service that is specifically aimed at assisting veterans,” Blackburn said. “Bell County’s veterans service officer is Keeyawnia Hawkins and I would urge those veterans in our community who are looking for the right place to go for assistance to get in touch with Ms. Hawkins. Her email address is Keeyawnia.Hawkins@co.bell.tx.us. Her office phone is 254-933-5915.”
Ernest Wilkerson, Write-in candidate
Wilkerson said the biggest thing a senior county official can do is advocate for funding for more veteran service officers.
Wilkerson served 20 years in the Army — three on active duty and 17 in the Army National Guard. He was also a DoD contractor and deployed as a civilian contractor several times to Afghanistan and Kuwait, where he said he was exposed to the toxic smoke from open burn pits.
“We are desperately understaffed at the county level when it comes to veteran service officers,” Wilkerson said. “There is only one, and we have more than 50,000 veterans in the county. As county judge, I would work to find the funds needed to hire more VSOs so our veterans are able to get the assistance they need when it comes to their health concerns.”
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