Dwan DeGraffe needed work. He had just gotten out of the Army, had just had his first child, and the small jobs he was finding in Killeen just didn’t pay enough to make the mortgage payments.
It was 2005, and the eight-year veteran had never deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
DeGraffe, who was 28 at the time, decided he needed something that would pay the bills and attended a job fair in Killeen. There, he met with a company called ITT Systems, a company contracted by the Department of Defense to upgrade the armor on the High Mobility, Multi Wheel Vehicles, commonly called humvees, in Iraq. He was hired by the end of the year and in 2006 headed to Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq.
“I did my first six months there and then was moved by my company over to Balad, or as some people call it, ‘Camp Trashcan,’” he said. “If you know how Balad is set up, the place where we lived was within walking distance to the burn pit.”
For months, DeGraffe worked and lived close enough to the open burn pit — which was 10 acres in size, roughly 10 football fields stacked side by side — to be breathing in the toxic smoke all day, every day. Then one day, the company told its employees to pack up and move to the other side of the camp.
“Now, I don’t know if we moved away from the site for some other reason, but I do know there were people who were complaining about the smell and the smoke, so that’s when we moved,” he said.
Burn pits were used to destroy plastics, batteries, medical waste, ammunition and everything in between so it would not fall into enemy hands or impact the environment. Burn pits have been in use in Southwest Asia since August 1990 at the beginning of Operation Desert Shield and used throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although DeGraffe was moved much farther from the burn pit, he spent the rest of his time there making daily trips to the burn pit to dispose of the crates used to ship the armor upgrade kits. He thought nothing of it at the time, because surely his company wouldn’t have him doing something if it could cause him harm.
“No protective equipment, no mask, nothing. In my mind, I figured it couldn’t be that bad for me because the company is telling me to do this,” he said. “But the conditions out there were not great at all.”
Then a lesion popped up on his face. At first he thought it might be a ringworm because he was working in an area where fine soil that could carry ringworms filled the air and left him covered in dust. Medics at the Troop Medical Clinic on Balad thought it was a fungal virus and gave him a hydrocortizone ointment.
“It worked to knock it out, but it wasn’t long term. It kept coming back,” DeGraffe said. “Then I started losing my hair. I had always had a full head of hair — beautiful, curly hair — my whole life. All the men in my family? Same thing. There really is no baldness inherent in my family.”
His hair started coming out in clumps as he would shower. He chalked it up to an early onset of premature baldness, thinking maybe he was destined to be the first bald person in his family, and decided he might as well just shave his head altogether.
“But when I shaved my head, I noticed I was getting the same type of lesions like I had on my face on the sides of my head,” he said. He was 29 at the time.
After he returned to Killeen in 2007, he had the lesions checked out by his primary care physician at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple. He was given medications that treat the lesions, but they continue to return and after they go back down again, they leave behind scar tissue.
Lately, he’s developed issues with his breathing that prevent him from doing simple things, such as running down the basketball court with his kids.
DeGraffe had not found a way to get help.
The Herald asked the Department of Labor what’s available to help civilian contractors having difficulty receiving care and learned of a way specifically designed for cases such as DeGraffe’s.
“The Defense Base Act provides workers’ compensation benefits to employees injured or killed overseas while working on U.S. government contracts,” Michael Trupo, a DOL spokesman, said in an email Thursday. “The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs administers DBA claims.”
Claims made through DOL can provide compensation or direct payments, reads OWCP Bulletin 12-01, dated Oct. 6, 2011.
DeGraffe pursued that information but found the process has limitations. DeGraffe asked an attorney and was told the biggest hurdles in burn pit cases are the statute of limitations, which is two years from the date of the last exposure, and having a doctor specifically relate each injury to exposure while doing the contract job.
In January 2018, however, a case brought before DOL by former contractor Veronica Landry of Colorado Springs, Colorado, helped ensure contractors would be able to receive benefits through the Defense Base Act. A judge under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office for Workers’ Compensation Programs decreed that open-air burn pits are directly connected to lung disease and a host of other illnesses such as cancer, respiratory problems and blood disorders.
Landry, in an online remark about her story, said that while it takes an attorney to have a claim filed through the Defense Base Act, “you do not pay for the representation at any point. It was specifically set up that way under the DBA.”
The case is not being used as precedence by the Departments of Defense or Veterans Affairs to presume exposure is related to illnesses in veterans. The research required to definitively link certain maladies to exposure could take upwards of 30 years, according to retired Army Col. (Dr.) Patricia Hastings, deputy chief consultant for the VA’s post deployment health services.
The VA has the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pits Registry to help further research. The registry is for veterans. Contractors who are veterans are not eligible for the VA’s registry if their only time serving in Southwest Asia was as a civilian and not as an active member of the military, DeGraffe said.
And, contractors such as DeGraffe are not the only civilians exposed to burn pits. Department of Defense government employees were deployed to military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Djibouti as well.
In 2003, Karen Kaylor was a Department of the Army civilian who spent five months in Kandahar, Afghanistan, working as a logistics assistance representative. She was a senior government employee in a GS- (Government Service) 12 position, basically the equivalent of the military officer rank of major.
“I roomed in a tent with a female Army major. Right behind the tent was the burn pit, and (it) was burning 24/7,” she said.
Kaylor, who turned 59 while she was in Afghanistan, had been in civil service since 1972. When certain problems began cropping up while she was there, she chalked it up to her age.
“I started having to go to the bathroom all the time through the night. I was 58, so thought it was my age, but I was talking to some of the GI females and said, I think for this old lady it’s just getting me,” the Copperas Cove resident said. “They said no, Karen, we’re in our 20s and it’s doing the same thing to us. We think it’s the bottled water.”
The Department of the Army asked Kaylor to head over to Iraq shortly before she decided to return to her position at Fort Hood, but Iraq was starting to heat up and she decided it was time to retire instead.
“When I came back, I had asthma — which I didn’t have before — and I had minor COPD and sleep apnea,” said Kaylor, now 73. “I don’t think I can blame my cancer on it, but who knows if it had anything to do with (burn pits). But I beat that, I had colon cancer that was diagnosed in 2015. But I honestly think the sleep apnea comes from the burn pits.”
Unfortunately, unless the government employee is married to a veteran or active duty service member and has access to Tricare, the military health insurance system, the only way for that employee to continue receiving medical care after he or she leaves the job is to retire, she said.
“GS civilians can get the option to pay to keep medical after they retire, but you really pay for that medical,” Kaylor said. “I don’t really know of anything other than that government employee health system that is out there, and you would have had to retire to keep that.”
The Herald emailed DoD media relations on Tuesday to find out what options government employees had when diagnosed with an illness they believed to be connected to exposure to open burn pits and airborne hazards, but did not receive a response before press time.
Regardless of how long it takes for civilians to be taken care of, DeGraffe said, he believes something must be done.
“It wasn’t just the military on those bases — we were on a military base as civilians,” he said. “(DoD) should be responsible for it — they’re responsible if someone is sexually assaulted or gets hurt on that military base, so they should be responsible for someone getting sick on their base.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 254-501-7554