For years, American soldiers serving their country abroad were exposed to toxins from so-called burn pits.
Now, even as they celebrate a win following an approval by Congress for new health data transparency and accountability, some are concerned their illnesses make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“I at first kind of panicked because I was like, ‘OK, I already have lung disease,’” Army National Guard veteran Cindy Aman said.
Aman and other soldiers and veterans are fighting both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs after getting ill from the pits. Aman now has a rare lung disease she says was caused by exposure to toxins while she was serving in the Iraq War.
“They found stuff they just called brown gunk. They don't even know what it is. And they also found all kinds of dust and metal particles like titanium, lead, iron. You name it, it's embedded in my lung cells,” she said.
The toxins come from burn pits, which are holes dug by the U.S. military and into which it throws in anything from water bottles, metals and other waste, and then lights it all on fire using jet fuel – all while soldiers live and work nearby.
Dr. Anthony Zsema, from the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in New York, treats vets who have been exposed to the pits and said some have permanent scarring from lung fibrosis.
“The problem is that since 2003, 80% of soldiers who get deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, when they apply for respiratory benefits or compensation intention, they get denied,” Zsema said.
The problem is that the VA and DOD still do not fully publicly recognize the dangers of burn pits.
Aman fought the VA for years for full medical benefits to cover her toxic exposure, and many others are still fighting the government for coverage.
They have made some progress. After about 10 years of advocating, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to make some changes by amending the National Defense Authorization Act.
The changes include:
- Making the DOD report to Congress all studies the department is conducting on the health effects of burn pits.
- Mandating that the DOD train its medical providers on the health effects.
- Requiring questions be included about burn pit exposure in a soldier’s post-deployment health assessment.
- Adding Egypt and Syria as locations where soldiers who serve can now sign up for the VA’s burn pit registry.
“This is long overdue. It is what some call the Agent Orange of our generation,” said Democratic California Rep. Raul Ruiz, who sponsored the amendments.
Rosie Torres, who runs the advocacy group Burn Pits 360, said the changes are a sign of progress, but are not yet a full victory. In her eyes, victory will only come when the VA recognizes burn pit exposure as a presumptive condition – one caused by military service and for which veterans can be awarded disability compensation.
“This is a huge injustice that is taking place here in our own backyard,” she said. “You know, this is our people. These are our heroes and they went to defend our freedom and we're failing them tremendously.”
Ruiz agreed, saying the issue needs to be made “urgent” within the VA and the DOD. He called it a “self-inflicted injury that the DOD caused for our service members who are also now veterans.”
The congressman supported two other amendments that were also added to the National Defense Authorization Act.
One forces the DOD and the VA to ask COVID-19-positive soldiers and veterans if they have been exposed to burn pits. The other requires information from the VA’s burn pit registry to be shared with the military health program’s COVID-19 registry.
“Veterans who have been exposed to burn pits and who have illnesses like lung diseases, cancers, autoimmune diseases are exactly the individuals who are at higher risk of dying or are becoming severely ill from COVID-19,” Ruiz said.
The VA told NBC10 that it has matched COVID-19 cases with the nearly 210,000 veterans on its burn pit registry. It said it encourages all veterans to take precautions against the virus but found only 0.28% contracted COVID-19.
The Department of Defense did not return NBC10’s requests for comment.
To Aman, the National Guard veteran, the VA’s low coronavirus figures are not comforting.
“I’m still scared. I mean, I don’t just – I think it’s the unknown. If I get it, what’s going to happen? Am I going to be able to fight it off?” she wondered.
To her, burn pit exposure and COVID-19 have something in common.
“They don't even know enough about what we have,” she said. “And they don't know – they don't know anything about COVID , really. And to say that it affects, you know, people with underlying conditions – like, the combination of the two is frightening."